An Auburn gymnastics meet is something different from most things you’ve seen in sports. There isn’t a ball, a bat, a club, or a racquet. There are hand grips and chalk powder. Stripe-suited referees are replaced by judges seated at a scoring table. Gone is the green of a playing field or the reflective shine of a smooth hardcourt… because its covered by massive, unfurled mats and chalky balance beams.
But the passion’s the same.
The pride is there, the heart is there, and the sights, and the sounds, and the colors. The crowd is just as lively, the cheers are just as bold, the orange just as orange, the navy just as blue.
It’s that spirit — the spirit of Auburn, the spirit of competition. The drive, the fight, the struggles, the successes, and the failures that bring people together the way only sports can. It’s all still there when the Auburn gymnasts take the floor.
And it will be there even more tonight in Auburn Arena the 16th-ranked Tigers try to snap a 103-meet losing streak to 6th-ranked, defending national champions: Alabama.
Auburn is hot off of posting its highest scoring total of the season in last Friday’s meet against No. 7 Georgia. Despite dropping that meet to the “Gym Dogs,” the Tigers still come into tonight’s meet with the momentum that comes from having on one of your best performances of the year go down in front of 4,508 fans, a record-setting crowd for gymnastics in the new arena. The record should probably stand for a few more hours before the house is packed for tonight’s throwdown with the Tide.
It’s not going to be easy for the Tigers to snap the losing streak tonight, because after, oh, 100 or so consecutive losses, it’s not much of a streak. It’s a marathon. Auburn is going to have to pretty much be perfect and, realistically, they’re going to have to hope for a couple of slips from the Tide. But if Auburn can run mistake-free, and if the Tigers can get another beast-mode performance from their senior leader and best all-arounder Kylie Shields, they could very well bring the meet down to the beam and the floor, the final two events.
If you go to the meet tonight you’ll see two bitter rivals competing. But it’s different: There’s an overtly positive vibe—and it isn’t forced or insincere, either. When an opponent slips there is no celebration or cheer as for a penalty flag. When an Bama girl doesn’t stick her landing, there won’t be a “Push’em Back” chant (though when an Auburn girl sticks her Heisman pose, you’ll definitely hear boos). And you’re not going to see a gym coach argue the judges’ tallies like they would argue balls and strikes.
There’s also a certain level of chaos on the floor that makes it that much more approachable. The invisible wall that seemingly makes the football field at Jordan-Hare Stadium sacred and unreachable, and the Auburn Arena court during basketball games untouchable, are all barriers that are pulled down for a gymnastics meet, traded for just the right amount of disorganization, a din to where you feel you could almost overhear coaches on the floor, and kids running notes over between the two judges’ tables.
The focus of attention is all on the action — the motions, the movements, the girls. There is no constant emphasis on the score, or the stats, or how many events are left, like the Fox Box and computer graphic scoreboards have trained us to look for. Instead, the crowd can just focus on the sights and sounds, the competitors and the routines, and the cheers and their neighbors. It’s the traits that you would usually consider as what would make it less of a spectator sport that makes gymnastics an even better one.
But while an Auburn gymnastics meet does appear to be different from beginning to end than nearly all other athletic events at the school, what it has in common with the others — the passion, the spirit, and the competition — it has in spades. They may call it a “meet” as opposed to a “game,” but all the while it’s hard to believe that neither team is actually ever doing the same event at the same time. And with competition so involved and with momentum so evident, sometimes it gets easy to forget that nobody is playing defense.
And at the end of the meet, both squads huddle up and stand on the mat in the center of the floor, like boxers in the middle of the ring after a heavyweight fight, awaiting the PA announcer to call out the judges’ final tallies.
The field is replaced by a mat, the uniforms are exchanged for one-piece tights, and the helmets are swapped for colorful hair bows. And instead of a thick line of eye black there’s thick, black eye liner—but it’s all the same. It’s war paint.
And tonight, it’s all the same. It’s Alabama.
Photo via Van Emst.
Justin Lee is a third generation Auburn man. In his spare time, he is junior-ish at Auburn, majoring in journalism. Curse him at [email protected].
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