Peaking at the right time: Why Alabama gymnastics has a real chance at winning national championship

Tess DeMeyer
The Tuscaloosa News

Luisa Blanco stared down the length of the balance beam and took a breath as she prepared to mount the apparatus. 

An Alabama gymnastics beam team that had a solid showing Friday during the Tuscaloosa Regional semifinals meet showed some nerves in the regional final Saturday night when a ticket to the NCAA Championships was on the line. But Blanco steadied herself after a pep talk from coach Dana Duckworth and put up a clutch performance in the anchor spot that earned a 9.9 and kept a chance at advancing to the national title event firmly in the Crimson Tide’s grasp. 

Alabama secured its berth to the championship in Fort Worth, Texas, with a team score of 197.575, and though the Crimson Tide finished second behind defending national champion Oklahoma’s 198.15, the team appears to be peaking at just the right time. 

“We’ve had so many moments this season where our ladies have become more mentally tough. They have more competitive experience in different environments, so every single time you compete, you get stronger,” Duckworth said, adding that the hesitancy she saw from her athletes on beam would be “a very teachable moment going into the next meet.” 

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The Crimson Tide has put up some of its highest scores of the season in its last few meets and held a temporary lead in the first rotation over Oklahoma after getting off to a hot start on the uneven bars. Alabama recorded five scores of 9.9 or better, and freshman Shania Adams led the way with a stuck double-back tuck dismount for a career-high 9.975. Cam Machado and Blanco, who was recently named SEC Gymnast of the Year, added a pair of 9.925s. 

Despite a few bobbles during the second rotation on balance beam, Alabama managed to avoid counting any score below 9.8. Blanco had the top score for her team on the event Friday night as well as Thursday, when the sophomore sensation recorded the first 10 of her career, an experience she described as “definitely something that’s surreal,” after the semifinal meet. 

Luisa Blanco competes on the vault in the Tuscaloosa Regional's final Saturday, April 3, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Blanco became the first Alabama gymnast to achieve a perfect score since 2017 and the first to do so on beam since 2014. Sophomore Makarri Doggette also received her first 10 Thursday with a perfect mark on the uneven bars. 

Floor exercise and vault posed some challenges for the Crimson Tide on Thursday as the team had to compete without Lexi Graber and Mati Waligora, both of whom Duckworth said were resting due to injuries. But junior Emily Gaskins said after the meet that the team “flipped a switch” heading into the final two events. 

“We were like, ‘All right, we got this. Let’s go Bama. This is our house. No one’s taking this away from us. We are the Crimson Tide, and we’re going to go show the arena and show every other team who we are. We’re going to fight,’” Gaskins said. 

That fire was evident during Alabama’s third rotation on floor where Gaskins recorded a career-high 9.925 for a routine that featured spirited choreography and a sky-high double-back layout as her first tumbling pass. Griffin James added a 9.9, and Blanco notched a 9.95 in the final spot.

The Crimson Tide held a comfortable lead over third-place Arkansas going into vault, but the team didn’t pull any punches. Graber returned to the lineup to score 9.85  for her last performance in Coleman Coliseum, while Shallon Olsen and Blanco posted 9.9s. 

The next stop is the Lone Star State where the national championship will take place April 16-17. Duckworth said “it’s an honor to move on” and something “you never, ever take it for granted,” but Alabama isn’t finished yet. 

“This team has just fight in them. I think they’ve been extremely disciplined. They’ve been mentally tough, and they love each other,” she said. “We’ve seen some miracles this season. We continue to show more just fierce greatness.”