ST. LOUIS — The name of the game is concentration.
One might think the ultimate meet of the women’s gymnastics season, the NCAA championships, the atmosphere might at least be one of an orderly celebration.
Instead, it’s more of a four-ring circus: six teams competing right on top of each other in a quadruple header of events — vault, beam, bars and floor — all requiring grace and execution but all with a flowing undercurrent of risk.
Anything can happen at any time, like music shutting off, turning a routine into a sweaty-palmed silent movie.
LSU coach D-D Breaux does her mischievous best to prepare her gymnasts for any eventuality. She’s like the team of NASA flight controllers during the Apollo era, throwing all manner of improbable (but possible) gremlins at the astronauts to test their ability to cope with the most adverse of conditions.
“We try to practice so we’re ready for surprises,” Breaux said. “I’ll tell Erin Macadaeg, ‘Give me a cold set on beam,’ whether she’s riding a (stationary) bike or whatever, with no music.”
If there’s a bright spot, it’s that by this point in the season gymnasts have their routines exceptionally well ingrained to the point where they almost become reflexes. They’ve also seen it all, especially performing without their proper accompanying music.
“When we go to away meets or multi-team meets — we had a tri-meet and a quad-meet this season — where we don’t have our beam music, it’s just another adjustment to make,” said senior Ashleigh Gnat.
“It’s not as hard as it seems,” added Gnat, who this week won the AAI Award given to the nation’s top senior gymnast. “It’s all about focus and staying in the zone. It’s all a mental challenge.”
Gnat makes it sound easy. She makes it look easy, too. But it’s a major issue with the addition of national championship pressure heaped on top of their narrow shoulders as well.
Beam, in particular, can be the stumbling block. A four-inch wide apparatus thrust four feet in the air, it’s an event built for heartbreak.
That’s certainly been the case for LSU in the past.
In 2005, LSU was ranked second on beam nationally and No. 3 overall. But the Tigers had a fall then two major wobbles on beam, their final event in the semifinals, allowing Nebraska to surge past and claim the third and final spot from their session in the Super Six. LSU would have to wait three more seasons before making the Super Six, gymnastics’ equivalent of the Final Four or the College World Series.
“In 2005, I think we had a really great team and we went to our last event and the kids didn’t pay attention to detail and they lost their focus,” Breaux said.
In 2015, the Tigers had arguably their best team to date, but crumbled on floor routine, typically a bedrock of LSU’s program. The Tigers wound up 10th and bitterly disappointed to not make the Super Six with the likes of seniors Rheagan Courville and Lloimincia Hall.
“That was sad because we had a great senior class that year,” Breaux said.
A slow start last year on bars put LSU too far behind to catch NCAA champion Oklahoma despite a thunderous closing kick as the Tigers finished as runners-up with their best NCAA showing ever.
This LSU team may not have always been quite as flashy as its biggest rival for the title again this year. The Sooners handed the Tigers their only loss in the four-team Mardi Gras Invitational back in February in suburban St. Louis and have five scores of 198 or better to LSU’s two. What the Tigers have displayed is solid state consistency. They’ve never had a routine below 49.000 this season or a team score below 197.425, with a string of 197-plus scores now stretching to 21 straight. Every time a gymnast or two had a bobble this season, someone came behind them to stick a clutch routine.
“Last year Oklahoma beat us,” Breaux said. “We had a couple of mistakes in our second rotation and they just are so solid they don’t make mistakes — they don’t do the difficulty that we do, so consequently they edged us out by just a little bit at the end.”
Compounding the degree of discomfort is the order of rotations. LSU starts with a bye then opens on floor in the second rotation, always the last event for home teams in a dual meet. Then the Tigers move to vault, have their second bye, then finish on bars and beam.
By that point, Breaux may have gnawed the manicure off her nails. She said she woke up at 3 a.m. Thursday morning and never got back to sleep.
Perhaps she was thinking of beam. Or bars. Or hearing the music stop.
With so much that can go wrong, the Tigers simply have to concentrate on all they’ve done right, and their sixth trip to the Super Six will be in their grasp.