What Alabama gymnastics needed to keep season going at NCAA Championships but didn't get

Bennett Durando
The Tuscaloosa News

FORT WORTH, Texas — In the back corner of the gymnastics floor, hidden behind the table of administrative seats, Alabama gathered one more time Thursday, sat in a circle and discussed what's next.

First, an immediate Plan B: Coach Dana Duckworth surveyed her athletes to determine whether they would stay for the remainder of the NCAA Championships. They decided to stay for Saturday's finals, even though the Crimson Tide had just been eliminated with a fourth-place score of 197.1.

Then the meeting became a chance to reflect on the semifinal meet, the season and the long-term connections established. 

"This team loves each other," Duckworth told the Tuscaloosa News. "They're so close. This is probably a team that has gelled in a very, very unique and special way. ... One day they'll be in each other's weddings."

Alabama's Lexi Graber competes on the floor exercise during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

This marked the bittersweet end for an Alabama team with five seniors and one fifth-year national champion; a team that Duckworth thinks grew closer than most because it "thrived" through the adversity of the COVID-19 pandemic; a team that scored three 198s in 2022 but stumbled early in the national meet, never fully recovering.

"We needed to start really strong," Duckworth said. "It just wasn't our night."

Alabama's best chance at getting past Utah into the finals was to jump ahead in the first rotation: The team was No. 3 in the country on uneven bars, its highest event ranking. But nobody scored a 9.9, and the Tide ended up with its second-lowest score on the event this season.

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"By not starting at our best in that first event," Duckworth said, "I think they kind of pulled back and they got a little nervous. And the nerves got to them."

Alabama's Lilly Hudson competes on the floor exercise during the NCAA college women's gymnastics championships, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The adversity was an uphill climb. Alabama's younger gymnasts got tough learning experiences. Freshman Lilly Hudson, who emerged as Duckworth's "rock" this season and dominated at NCAA regionals, struggled to get past her 9.7875 on bars. She executed an "exquisite" beam routine, Duckworth said — until an overly ambitious landing. One stumble, and the score was a 9.6. Just that kind of day.

Floor was Alabama's best event, but the momentum didn't carry. It ended with the Tide's third-lowest vault score (49.125).

Which led Duckworth to be quick in emphasizing during the post-meet circle (and afterward in an interview) that "we broke records this year. You can't look at this season with one meet and allow it to be indicative of everything we've accomplished."

One last potential accomplishment remained within grasp, even as the team's season ended. It was reason enough for the Tide to stick around in Fort Worth. Junior Luisa Blanco faced her own recent adversity in a national championship defense effort on beam — the same event where Duckworth once dominated NCAA gymnastics.

Blanco fell on beam at the SEC Championship meet and injured her ankle. She skipped the event both days at the regional meet, nursing the injury in hopes of competing at nationals. The Saturday before these NCAA semifinals, she was still hurting as she took practice reps.

Still, "it felt like, 'OK, she's confident,'" Duckworth said. Blanco and coaches made the decision: She would compete. 

But first she needed to learn a new dismount. A less harsh landing. 

Blanco had three days to learn it. She stuck the landing Thursday. 

"She literally did that dismount and has probably done it 20 — not even 20 — 10 times," Duckworth said.

Blanco's 9.9375 score was caught in a five-way tie as the afternoon session ended, leaving Blanco in championship repeat contention. 

It was one of Alabama's only five 9.9 scores in the meet.

Another one of the five? Blanco's 9.9125 on vault. She only decided to compete in that third and final event Monday.

As the team sat in a circle and reflected on its resilience, Blanco's performance embodied it.

"She was in a lot of pain this weekend," Duckworth said, "but she went for it because she was doing it for her sisters."