Listen up, Alabama fans, and listen good. I know you like winning—and I’m about to say something really controversial—but sometimes it’s not the most important thing. I know, I know. But hear me out.
Let’s take a step back. Alabama gymnastics is one of the few dynasties in the sport. With six national titles, intense rivalries and a history of excellence, not being at the top of the podium each and every year just doesn’t cut it.
For those close to the program at least.
It can be hard to take a step back after winning for so many years. And with a football team that doesn’t know how to lose and an expectation of rings, trophies and gold medals, it’s easy to look at one bad year and call for change. But it’s not time to give up on Alabama gymnastics, and in particular, head coach Dana Duckworth, just yet.
Alabama’s last title came in 2012 and was the second of two consecutive. That’s six years without a title. Wait. Let me rephrase that sentence. That’s only six years without a title. Duckworth took over the program for the 2015 season after longtime head coach Sarah Patterson stepped down in part due to needing double knee replacement surgery. Duckworth led her team to the SEC championship title that year.
Since 2015, the Crimson Tide has remained steady as one of the top teams in the country, making the Super Six every year up until this season and finishing in the top three at the conference championship each of the last four years. So sure this season’s eighth-place finish is disappointing. The team, the fans, the coaches should be disappointed. But it’s also not the end of the world.
“You are sometimes going to have to watch the Super Six from the stands. And it hurts. And it stings. It is what it is,” she said on the That’s Just Waack podcast. “How do you make it OK? You get better. I don’t regret any of the decisions that the coaches made to try to make us the best we can be.”
There are plenty of arguments to be made to defend Alabama’s finish: The season was plagued with injuries, from valuable seniors Mackenzie Brannan tearing her Achilles and Kiana Winston not being at full all around strength to lineup stalwart Wynter Childers dealing with nagging wrist pain and Bailie Key still working her way back from years of elite injuries. You can say there’s more parity in the sport: Kentucky qualified to its first-ever national championships, teams like George Washington, BYU, N.C. State and Boise State made legitimate pushes to qualify. You can even say the other teams were just better.
But none of that matters.
What Duckworth brings to the Alabama program is more than just perfect 10s, championship trophies and big-name recruits. (But she brings those, too. See above.) She brings a culture that has been severely lacking in the sport for many, many years. We all know about the Larry Nassar scandal at this point. But it’s more than that. For years, gymnasts trained in an environment that tore down their defenses, stripped them of their confidence and mentally damaged them so severely many wanted to or did quit the sport for good.
Unlike football, basketball or even swimming, nearly all gymnasts use college athletics as a four-year retirement party. Sure there are exceptions, but the majority are there to have fun after a lifetime of hardship and hard work. We like to say, college gymnastics is a place for elites to be happy. But some NCAA programs epitomize that more than others. Alabama is one of them. And it only really started when Duckworth took over.
Her pep talks have become famous, her conversations uplifting and you can clearly see her gymnasts are enjoying what they’re doing when they step foot on the floor to compete. She’s molding not only great gymnasts—and they are great—but great human beings, too. “As a coach, you want them to leave a better version of themselves,” Duckworth said on the podcast. “You want them to have self-awareness and growth as a human being.”
And don’t get me wrong. Gymnasts having fun and being great people is nice and all but WHAT ABOUT THE WINNING??? Because I know that’s what a lot of you care about, let’s go there.
UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos-Field is the original inspirational leader. She is well-known for transforming the lives of her gymnasts, making them better people, oh and winning championships. It’s not an either or situation. You don’t have to choose between happiness and titles.
UCLA has now won 115 national titles as a school. So it knows all about winning. Arguably even more so than Alabama despite Nick Saban, and previously, Bear Bryant’s football success. And similar to Duckworth, Kondos-Field went eight years between national titles. She even missed the Super Six a few times. But no one called for her resignation or questioned whether it was time for change—at least not publicly or on a fan group on Facebook.
With the team’s national title this year, Kondos-Field proved a positive training environment and success can coexist. It just takes time. These gymnasts often come in broken—in more ways than one—and shaping them into champions in the gym and out of it isn’t an immediate process. This is the environment Duckworth is crafting at Alabama. This is the leader you want at the helm of a storied program.
So before you call for Duckworth’s head, seek change or take to social media to complain about the state of Alabama gymnastics, consider things more than just collecting championships. Alabama will get there, but the work it’s doing now is more important than any trophy it could ever win.
As Duckworth told her team, “You are beautiful. You are lovely. Go out there and enjoy this.” Because in the climate we’re in with the sport now, that’s what matters.
Article by Elizabeth Grimsley