The RV rolled into town around midnight, its members oblivious to what was waiting for them at the end of their already-long journey. As they got closer to Alabama’s campus, police turned on their lights to escort them the rest of the way.
This got everyone’s attention. Eyes turned outside.
Soon enough, the chaos came into view. People lined the streets. Signs boasted words of congratulation. Cheers rang through the crowd.
No. 9 Kentucky at No. 7 Alabama
When: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Coleman Coliseum
Records: Alabama 3-3, 3-2 SEC; Kentucky 5-3, 2-3 SEC
TV: SEC Network
Alabama gymnastics’ senior captains – Alli Beldon Kustoff and Kathy Bilodeau Varney – watched in awe.
“Seriously, I remember like it was yesterday,” Beldon Kustoff said.
If only yesterday was 30 years ago.
This is the 1988 team we’re talking about. The one that not only won Alabama’s first gymnastics national championship trophy but also the triple crown, claiming conference, regional and national titles in one season. Each was with flying colors.
The Crimson Tide first posted a record 190.15 at the Southeastern Conference Championships, then a record 191.75 at the NCAA Central Regional Championships and finally a record 190.05 at the NCAA Championships.
“It put the program on the map,” Bilodeau Varney said. “It gave us some new credibility. It was a launching pad in many ways, but you just don’t realize that at such a young age. Now, when you look back at it, you actually see it. Back then, it’s like we just wanted to win a national championship.”
It was the first of six, a number that makes UA the third-most decorated gymnastics program in the nation.
The key word there is team. That was the biggest emphasis with the 1988 Crimson Tide. It didn’t matter how many All-Americans, personal trophies or hotshots it had. What mattered was how good everyone was as a unit.
“I feel like the most telling point is Penney Hauschild was our first individual national champion (1985-86) and she came to Salt Lake City (site of the 1988 NCAA Championships),” legendary former Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said. “She was sitting in the stands crying and said, ‘I would give away every individual championship I have to be a part of this group.’”
There was just something special about those 11 women who will be reunited Friday for Alabama’s annual alumni weekend. This one specifically is honoring the 1988 team and its 30th anniversary. But everyone is invited.
Members of the 1988 Alabama gymnastics team are cheered on by fans during a parade for the Crimson Tide after winning the national championship. The 1988 team will be honored on Friday at the Crimson Tide’s alumni night at Coleman Coliseum, where No. 7 Alabama faces No. 9 Kentucky. [Photo/Alabama Athletics]
Each year, about 60 to 80 former UA gymnasts return to Tuscaloosa to solidify the message Patterson left behind four years ago: Tradition never graduates.
“Some of them I actually forget weren’t on my team,” Beldon Kustoff said. “Some of them are 20, 25 years younger, and I see them and say, ‘Oh, this is my teammate.’ People look at me like, ‘Your teammate? You’re really old for that.’
“But I do. I refer to them as my teammates. We’re all sisters.”
And this is their form of a family reunion.
In the middle of a trip down memory lane, Patterson’s voice was muffled by the chatter between old teammates. There were four words that slipped through about that April 22, 1988, night: It changed the world.
“You were our first championship,” Patterson said to her former team captains. “Now I see what all of the other women and all of the other sports, including my own daughter, have as an opportunity to do because you all opened the doors.”
Jordan Patterson was a member of Alabama’s first national championship softball team in 2012. UA women’s golf won a title that year, too.
So did gymnastics.
Again, for the sixth and most recent time.
The first one, though, is always the hardest to accomplish.
“To win a national championship, so much has to happen,” Bilodeau Varney said. “The stars have to align. It’s talent. It’s consistency. It’s hard work. It’s unity. Then, every coach’s decision has to be spot on.
“That year, in 1988, boy was it magical.”