Competing with Purpose
Oklahoma women’s gymnastics coach K.J. Kindler said she could feel the crowd pulling for her team to win at the 2014 NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala.
At that time, only five schools had won national titles since the NCAA first sanctioned the sport in 1982 – Georgia (10), Utah (9), Alabama (6), UCLA (6) and defending champion Florida (1). The up-and-coming Sooners were the team of the moment.
For the first and only time in NCAA women’s gymnastics, there wound up being national co-champions as OU and Florida finished with identical scores of 198.175 three years ago. The Sooners happily embraced their role as co-champions after the Gators had edged OU for the 2013 NCAA crown by a margin of 0.200 (197.575-197.375).
Well, times have changed.
The Sooners were the 2016 national champs all by themselves and will seek back-to-back crowns when the NCAA Championships are held Friday and Saturday at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. OU will compete in Semifinal I at noon Friday against No. 4 Utah, No. 5 UCLA, No. 8 Oregon State, No. 9 Denver and No. 13 Washington. The top three finishers from Semifinal I and Semifinal II advance to the NCAA “Super Six” on Saturday night to compete for the national title.
The Sooners have won two NCAA titles, tying with Florida in 2014 before winning outright in 2016.
Fresh off their fifth undefeated regular season under Kindler, the defending champs are this weekend’s No. 1 seed for a multitude of reasons, the most recent of which came April 1 at the NCAA Seattle Regional, where the Sooners posted a nation-high 198.075 in regional competition. OU entered the meet with a program record with a regional qualifying score (RQS) of 198.010.
OU’s overall excellence this season frequently has been perfection with four gymnasts combining for nine perfect 10.0s. Though only a freshman, Maggie Nichols already owns the school career record with six and scored at least one 10.0 in every event, becoming just the ninth collegiate gymnast to ever do so. Senior McKenzie Wofford and sophomore Nicole Lehrmann each earned a 10.0 on the uneven bars and senior Chayse Capps scored a 10.0 on the balance beam. Six OU gymnasts earned a nation-best 14 regular-season All-America honors this season, with junior AJ Jackson and sophomore Brenna Dowell joining the aforementioned perfectionists. (Dowell scored a 10.0 in 2015 on uneven bars.)
Seventeen of OU’s scores this season rank in the top 10 in program history.
Suffice to say, the Sooners no longer are up-and-coming. They have reached the summit and have no intention of descending anytime soon.
“They have a target on their back,” Kindler said of her team. “People are gunning for them. Everyone roots for the underdog, and that’s not us. Now there’s that expectation and pressure knowing people are gunning for you. We just need to focus on ourselves and not on that.”
Six seniors occupy this year’s Sooners roster with Capps, Wofford, Charity Jones, Kara Lovan, Reagan Hemry and Nicole Turner. “Yeah, it’s a big number,” Kindler said with a sigh.
Kindler said it’s difficult to determine the best senior class in her 11 seasons at OU, but if the Sooners were to win the title Saturday night, it would be the third national crown in four years for the current class. “Hey, we’ve only won two of the last three,” Kindler cautioned of looking ahead. “Women’s gymnastics is decided by tenths (of a point), so anything can happen. It really can. That’s what makes it so exciting, but we’ll go and fight for it.”
Nichols clearly commands center stage on the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. She is the only collegiate gymnast to earn five regular-season All-America honors this season. Nichols has excelled nationally and internationally since age 10. She was a member of the gold-medal 2015 U.S. Women’s World Championship team and just missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, placing sixth at the team trials.
“Amazing,” Kindler succinctly said of the freshman phenom, who hails from Little Canada, Minn. “Maggie getting a 10 on all four events, I’m like, ‘Pinch me, please.’ That just doesn’t happen very often.”
The spotlight also shines brightly on Capps, who this season earned first-team All-America honors in the all-around (39.700) and on balance beam (10.0) and second-team honors on floor exercise (9.975). First-team status this season also was obtained by Dowell (on vault) and Jackson (on floor exercise). Lehrmann, who was first-team last year on uneven bars, earned second-team status this season.
But for the upcoming NCAA Championship, Kindler wanted to acknowledge Wofford and Jones, in particular. “Those two never get recognized for the things they do,” said Kindler, who has been selected as National Coach of the Year three times. “It just tells you that every person on this team brings a different spice to the pot.”
In baseball parlance, Jones is OU’s leadoff hitter.
"It’s so amazing to watch my teammates. I’m so grateful to be on this team and to contribute to it. Our chemistry together is just so awesome."
— Charity Jones
“I’ve always believed our starters on every event are the most important position and she holds three of the four,” Kindler said of Jones, who leads off for the Sooners on vault, balance beam and floor exercise. “That means we put a lot of faith in her. She’s basically the person who turns the ignition. She gets that car started. Charity is kind of the unsung heroine of this senior class. She has contributed so much these last two years. We couldn’t have done it without her.”
Meanwhile, Capps goes first for OU on uneven bars. “Seniors lead us off on every event,” Kindler said proudly, “which is by design, for sure. People think in gymnastics you make your event lineup from weakest to strongest, and that’s not true. That’s not our philosophy. We pick someone we can count on every time. Someone who’s like money in the bank. To me, that person is Charity. She has just shown super mental toughness, more than anyone on our team. She really is amazing that way.”
When informed of Kindler’s description that she’s “money in the bank,” Jones giggled and said, “That’s pretty cool she said that.”
Jones, who battled injuries to each foot her freshman and sophomore seasons, appears to be far too busy admiring her teammates to worry about pressure in her own performance. “It’s so amazing to watch my teammates,” Jones said. “I’m so grateful to be on this team and to contribute to it. Our chemistry together is just so awesome.”
Meanwhile, Wofford serves a dual purpose – seeking perfection on the uneven bars and doing so while keeping her team loose.
“McKenzie has been one of the best bar workers in the country every year she’s been here,” Kindler said. “She’s really a leader in spirit on our team. She gives us that ‘relax’ factor. Every team, especially at this level, has a lot of intensity, passion and discipline. She’s that person who throws you off a little bit and lightens up a situation. She kind of changes the atmosphere, and that’s good. We need that because we’re way too serious about ourselves sometimes. She really can change the mood that quickly and get people to chill out a little bit.”
Wofford concurred with Kindler’s assessment the Sooners tend to get “way too serious” at times. “Oh, for sure,” Wofford said with a chuckle.
Wofford said her sense of humor, “comes pretty naturally. I like to have fun when I compete. It’s kind of like one of my jobs and I take pride in it. At practice, I’ll do it if we’ve had a hard day. I try to lift people up around me. I definitely try to keep the mood more relaxed. I think we do better that way.”
Kindler said she took particular pleasure in Wofford finally capturing the elusive 10.0 after a career filled with 9.9-somethings on uneven bars.
"You don’t just come in every day and work out. There has to have meaning behind it. There has to be a reason you’re there, and what is the reason, and what are trying to accomplish today? They’ve really taken that message and run with it all year long. There’s purpose behind what we’re doing."
— K.J. Kindler
“I was so happy to have McKenzie receive that because she is that level of gymnast in that event,” Kindler said. “It was that thing she wanted so bad in her career and I’m so glad it’s done. I told her she doesn’t have to think about it anymore. ‘You got it, you earned it, you own it. No one’s going to change that.’”
For Wofford, perhaps not thinking about perfection is for the best. “I definitely try to get a 10 every time,” Wofford admitted, “but I’m a gymnast who can’t focus too much on things. I actually mess up more when I do. So just have fun with it, and if I get another 10, I will.”
Before this season began, Kindler stressed for her team to be “purposeful.”
“You don’t just come in every day and work out,” Kindler explained. “There has to have meaning behind it. There has to be a reason you’re there, and what is the reason, and what are trying to accomplish today? They’ve really taken that message and run with it all year long. There’s purpose behind what we’re doing. We’re not just biding our time, or doing what we’re told. There’s something we want and we’re going to make sure every single day we’re chipping away at what we want. It was definitely a message to them, but they made it their own thing.”
Wofford and Jones quickly acknowledged being purposeful has been a key element to this season.
“It was definitely a word to keep in our mind,” Wofford said. “The more purposeful you are in practice, the fresher you’ll feel. It’s quality over quantity.”
Jones said, “We have this thing called ‘Go Green.’ Basically it means don’t hold back. Just give everything that you can out on the floor.”
As for the Sooners successfully defending their crown, Jones said, “It’s amazing that we’ve come this far. Obviously, we have more work to do. I think we do feel pressure, but we just go in there and focus on our details and what we know how to do.”
Kindler confirmed there is no magic potion she uses to prepare her team for the championship meet.
“If there’s a magic potion out there, give me some,” Kindler said with a laugh. “Any coach will tell you that in these championship moments, you want your team to compete free and feel no expectation. Just do it and have fun.”