State of the Hogs: Gymnastics

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I've seen Barnhill Arena crazy before. My favorite image was the night the last basketball game was played there in 1993. Shaquille O'Neal tried to go up for a baseline shot at the buzzer and there was a foul. Todd Day whacked him good. There was no call.

Why? Perhaps the Razorback Nation — over 9,000 screaming fans — convinced the SEC officials not to call anything. The refs got swept up in the moment.

Oh, that doesn't happen? Yes it does. Mark Cook hopes the Barnhill crowd produces some magic for the Arkansas gymnastics team at 7 p.m. Friday night when it plays host to No. 1 Florida.

"Scoring in gymnastics is objective/subjective," said Cook, who along with wife Rene are the co-head coaches of the red-hot Razorback gymnasts. "Fans do make a difference. It's like basketball. I can't tell you how much difference it makes, but it does happen."

The Razorbacks got their first top 10 finish at the NCAA last year, the second straight year the new program has qualified for nationals. They cracked the top 10 in the national ratings last week at No. 5, their highest rating in the seven years of the program. They slipped to eighth on the basis of new results from other teams this week.

"We moved down a little," Cook said. "That's the way it works in our sport. The team scores determine the polls and some high performances came in."

It's an incredible sport. Really, it's just as much of a show as it is a sport.

"People who have not seen a gymnastics meet will be taken back by the athletic ability of these girls," Cook said. "Their courage to produce such complex moves in so many different events is amazing. There are just so many of these moves if not done perfect that can lead to catastrophic injury.

"It takes focus every minute of the day for their sport. That means their training, their school work, their study hall. We go by the NCAA rules on how many hours they can train, but there is so much more to it than just the hours they train. They have to take care of their bodies in every way.

"And, they will love the show. The good news is that it doesn't take a long time, about one hour, 45 minutes."

All of that is true. And, it's also apparent that fans can make a difference.

"There is protocol and our fans have done a good job of learning what they can do," Cook said. "There are times to cheer and times to encourage and times to be quiet."

And, there are times that boos are OK, too. If you think the judge missed the score — especially for a Razorback — then by all means boo. That's not from Cook. It's from me. I can promise you it's fine, no matter what the SEC code might say to the contrary.

I learned a lot about gymnastics this week. Oh, I've watched the Olympics and some NCAA events on ESPN. What I learned after a long sit-down with Mark Cook is that college gymnastics is different and perhaps a little bit more fun.

First, these athletes, for the most part, are maybe more consistent than the younger gymnasts we've seen on TV. They have mastered their skills from long careers as club athletes.

"We don't have to do near the repetition in practice with our athletes that I did when I was coaching club," Cook said. "The club gymnast is still learning skills. These girls have them down."

Much of what a college gymnast does on a daily basis is work to prevent injury. I've seen the team at Fayetteville Athletic Club working in a team "spinning" class. That's what Cook called it. It looked like riding a bike to music to me.

"We do the spinning one day a week and the girls also take a Pilates," Cook said. "The joints can break down, so we do spend a lot of time working to prevent injuries. They've been doing these moves a long time. There is a lot of therapy, a lot of massage, a lot of whirlpool, to keep them healthy.

"In reality, this is a contact sport. They are making contact with the equipment at high speed. Everything we do is to keep our athletes healthy for a short season."

Much like football, there are 12 scheduled competitions, 14 if you add the regionals and nationals. The Razorbacks are also hopeful of making their third straight trip to the NCAA championships.

So far, this new program is ahead of schedule. The Cooks set a goal of making nationals in their fifth season.

"We did it in four, so that was a little bit of a surprise," Mark said. "The tough part is to keep repeating and then try to crack that ‘Super Six' at nationals."

That's what all the programs are trying to do, make it to that last six. To put that in perspective, consider that LSU had a string of 17 straight NCAA appearances and up until last year had never cracked the Super Six.

"What you see at the NCAA is that everyone is on their game," Cook said. "There are national team members sprinkled through those teams in the Super Six. There are a few Olympians there. You can watch rotation after rotation and not see one fall. I've seen 72 straight athletes compete without a fall. Amazing."

Gymnastics is an emerging sport in Arkansas, perhaps in part because of the new program at the UA. Cook is proud of that and indicates the time is fast approaching when a native Arkansan will compete for the team. Ashly McPherson was the first local to compete for the UA gymnastics team.

"I can't comment on specific athletes in recruiting, but that might be next year," he hints. "We are so pleased with the way our sport and our team has been embraced by our state." The reverse is true, too.

"You just would have to see our fans, parents and our squad Calling the Hogs in Oregon last week to understand that," he said. "These girls just love representing the state and they love going to events on campus. They are proud of this university."

The Cooks love all that's here.

"I've enjoyed the outdoor sports — the kayaking, mountain biking, hiking," Cook said. "I kayaked the Buffalo River last year — there are things here right in our backyard that are just wonderful. When we came out to look into starting this program, we spent four days here and just fell in love with the area."

Mark Cook hopes that Barnhill is rocking and rolling Friday night just like the Buffalo River after a big spring rain.

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