Faehn has Gators aiming for the top

When Rhonda Faehn is recruiting an athlete to become a part of her nationally ranked gymnastics program at Florida, eventually the conversation will get around to gymnastics but not before she has a good feeling for the young woman she's considering bringing to Gainesville to spend the next four years. When she's recruiting an athlete, she stresses how the small things become big things and how it's important to manage all the details of life. She talks about life after gymnastics.

"It starts with the small things and extends all the way to the things at the top," said Faehn. "I think it's really important that the athletes learn everything the right way now and it will make them a better person, stronger person, and something to move on from when they're done with gymnastics, when they've graduated from here and have a great education.

"They need to know that they're going to be an even better person, an even stronger person in all sorts of ways, because of the full experience we offer at the University of Florida. We are trying to produce and help them to grow to be the best person possible --- not just the best gymnast or best student --- but the best all around person. And yeah, we want them to be the best gymnast, too."

The all-around person is the focus of Faehn's recruiting for a variety of reasons. She knows that to bring the national championship level gymnastics program she envisions to Florida, she has to have gymnasts who can perform at the highest levels. It's her belief that you can't be slack in the areas of life away from the gym and still handle all the rigors and pressures of the training and meets that make up big time college gymnastics.

She knows something about performing at the highest levels. She was trained by the very best, the legendary Bela Karolyi, and was a member of the gold medal US team at the 1987 Pan American Game. Some remember her perfect 10 on the vault at both the US Olympic Trials and US National Championships in 1988. She was All-America at UCLA on the balance beam and the all-around.

Now in her third year as Florida's head coach, her goal is to put the Gator program at the highest level of collegiate gymnastics, but to do so means an investment in the whole person, not just the gymnast who will perform in crowded arenas. For her, this is an easy sell because she cannot imagine that there is a better place for college gymnastics than Gainesville.

"I love the University of Florida and what the University of Florida has to offer I truly believe in 100 percent," she says. "I do not think there is a better environment in the country academically and athletically. When we recruit here, all we have to do is show them the truly unbelievable environment we can provide for their life, for their training.

"I truly believe that there isn't any place that can offer an athlete what we can at Florida in terms of academics, athletics, the whole package."

She already had a vision of what she wanted when Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley came calling in 2003. She was the associate head coach at Nebraska at the time, and when Foley interviewed her, she made it perfectly clear that her commitment was to do everything in a first class manner or else she would have no part of it. She sold Foley on her belief that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the only way she'll do it is the right way.

"That included how and where we practice, how we travel, how we handle academic support… everything," she said. "I want everything we do so above board that anyone in the country who looks at this program, the coaching staff and the athletes sees that we are doing everything right, that we are trying as hard as we can to carry ourselves and represent the university in a manner that is totally first class."

When she arrived in Gainesville in 2003, first on her agenda was to change the mindset of the gymnasts already in the Florida program. The Gators, once one of college gymnastics elite teams, had slipped from that upper tier. Getting back to the top level would begin with changing the expectations and that meant a program of tough love.

It meant changing work habits. It meant changing attitudes. It meant turning practices into a love-hate relationship. She learned that from Bela.

"Bela was unbelievable as a motivator," she said. "There were so many days when we didn't want to be in the gym because we were hurting or we were tired or beat up and we just didn't think we could do what he wanted us to do, and then he would turn it around and get us on that same day to where we would not want to leave the gym. We hated practice but we loved it so much we wanted more."

Attitudes like that were missing in the Florida program. There was no burning desire within the program to improve. There was no day to day demand to make this day better than the last, both individually and as a team. Needless to say, the team expectations were set at a level that was simply unacceptable.

"I think that [tough love] was missing before I came here," she said. "When I first took the job and sat before the team that was before me, they were a very talented group and I felt that their expectations of themselves were way too low. It was if you messed up, ‘oh that's okay, you'll get it next time' and I told them no, that's not all right. There are no more excuses."

Changing those perceptions began by letting the team know that "if they are this good --- good enough to be at the University of Florida --- then they have to expect more of themselves every single time starting in practice." The team finished third in the Southeastern Conference in 2003, second in the NCAA regional and seventh at the nationals. They followed that up with a fifth place finish in the NCAA championships last year.

"Once we built up confidence in them that ‘you are this good so why are you making these kinds of mistakes?' their mindsets changed to a completely different level and they were able to do better than they had ever done before," she said. "Now we have changed the expectations. Now they say we want to be a part of making history. They say we want to make this the fifth school (UCLA, Utah, Alabama and Georgia are the other four) to ever win an NCAA gymnastics championship."

She's brought in talented athletes and those who are already in the program fully understand that the next recruiting class will bring in even more talent. Faehn believes strongly that if her gymnasts are not pushed every day in practice that they will never perform at the highest level when they step into the arena for pressure-packed meets.

She has 16 gymnasts. In a meet, there are four events and room for only six gymnasts in each event (five scores count, one is tossed). That means the pressure to perform in practice is tremendous because the competition to get a place in the lineup is fierce.

"Yes, the competition at practice is where it starts," she said. "They are looking at all these girls and realize that if I want to be in the lineup, I have to beat them out to get a spot out there to help the team. That means every one of my moves is being watched so if I fall that counts against me to not get in the lineup. That's a tremendous amount of pressure every day, so if they can handle the pressure of practice, the meet … well, that's easy. If you don't create that kind of atmosphere with practice you don't produce the results and get the consistency."

And for all the physical skills that we see in a meet --- the acrobatics and tumbling; the leaping and twisting and turning in midair; the delicate balance and precision --- Faehn will tell you that meets are won between the ears more often than they are in the arena.

"Really, it's about 90 percent mental when they step out on the floor," she said. "The hard part is teaching the focus that they need to block it out when a baby cries or the crowd applauds or the music starts to pound.

"The hardest part is not teaching a skill or how to stick a landing. It's in the mind. At this point, their bodies know exactly what to do because they've done this a million times over. They've trained for six months just to do this one routine so it isn't physical as much as it is mental. Keeping that focus and keeping that mental edge is what it's all about."

But mistakes happen. This is a sport where having legs apart a fraction of an inch on a dismount can cause enough of a deduction that it can cost a team a victory. It is also a sport fraught with danger. The chance for injury is high yet the performers go about their tasks fearlessly, yet each time one of her gymnasts makes that final tumbling run, or dismounts from the bars or beam or flies through the air in the vault, no matter the results, good or bad, there are fifteen teammates that charge over to offer encouragement, congratulations and love.

"It's amazing and if somebody does make a mistake, the rest of them are there to pick them up and to support them," she said. "It's wonderful to see, one of the reasons that NCAA gymnastics as a team event is so great. They finish a routine and the whole team is running to them, charging over there to support them and cheer them on. Good or bad, it's the same thing.

"It builds them up so much. They really are a family. You come here and amazingly, you suddenly have 15 new family members who will be your family in the great times and the rough times. They will be friends for life."

Now the focus for Rhonda Faehn is a Friday night (7 p.m., Stephen C. O'Connell Center) meet with third ranked Alabama, last year's third place finisher in the NCAA, which will be followed by next Friday's showdown with Georgia in Athens. Her team is ranked tenth nationally with a chance to make a major move in the rankings. The Gators have already bested Alabama in the season opening Super Six meet and they lost to Georgia in the same meet by a fraction of a point.

It's not boasting when she speaks of her expectations for these meets and the rest of the season. She believes in her team. She believes in their talent. She believes in their ability to win championships.

"I tell them just focus on doing your job because we're that good," she said. "We're going to win. Yes. We may be up or down a little bit here or there in these meets but when all is said and done we're going to win. We're that talented that we're going to have the results we want. We just don't want to get caught up in all the little things that can cause us to lose focus."

Her team believes. In the next two meets, they have a chance to make the entire college gymnastics world take notice and believe, also.

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