Heavy is the burden when finishing among the 12 best teams in the country is viewed more as a painful learning moment than a momentous occasion.
“I hope the girls next year really learn from this and learn what they can because I don’t want this to happen again; nobody does,” Georgia senior gymnast Kat Ding said of her team’s fifth-place finish in Friday’s second round of NCAA Super Six preliminaries at the Gwinnett Center, just shy of the top-three finish it would need to compete in today’s team finals. “I hope they grow as people from this, because that’s what they should do.”
Welcome to the world of Georgia gymnastics, where the only thing more monumental than the program’s successes are the expectations placed upon it.
Surely, Gym Dogs fans have been spoiled. Ten national titles in a little more than 20 years will do that to you.
Is it fair to look at a season that falls short of that something less than wildly successful, considering all but six teams are watching from home, too? Probably not, though it’s hard to find someone to feel sorry for you when you become a victim of your own success. That doesn’t mean it’s not a bitter pill to have to swallow for Ding and fellow seniors Gina Nuccio and Mariel Box.
When this year’s seniors enrolled at Georgia, the team was riding a run of four consecutive national championships and would win another in their freshman season.
For the most part, that taste of national success was fleeting. The Gym Dogs tied for second at a regional competition in 2010 and came out on the losing end of the tiebreaker scenario and failed to advance. A year later, the team finished tied for ninth at the NCAA championships, again just a day short of competing for a title.
“After my freshman year, (winning a national title) was something I never thought was possible, but then I couldn’t imagine it any other way,” Ding said. “After that, that next year was really disappointing. Every year after that, it’s just been one step closer and one step closer and being disappointed.”
It hasn’t been all lumps on the road to Saturday. The Gym Dogs have won their share of competitions and spent their careers ranked among the nation’s best, and Ding won the 2011 uneven bars title and has a shot at doing it again on Sunday when she competes in the vault, bars and floor exercise in the individual finals.
“I never thought I’d accomplish being a personal national champion, and I never thought I’d accomplish something so big in being a team champion,” Ding said. “But that’s what I went to Georgia for. … That’s what I came to Georgia for, and that’s what I’m still proud to say I went to Georgia for. I enjoyed my career here.”
Georgia coach Jay Clark has said he doesn’t need another national title for himself — he won plenty as an assistant and associate coach under Suzanne Yoculan — but seeing his team fall short on Friday was an emotional blow for the coach, who described Nuccio and Ding as being as gritty as athletes come and as deserving as any of a chance at national title to call their own.
Nuccio worked through a series of injuries, and Ding reinvented herself as an all-around competitor to help the team.
“Those kids, I hurt for them because they wanted it,” Clark said. “The whole team wanted to send them out on a good note. They experienced the highs of winning (a national title), they’ve experienced the low of not making it, and they’ve experienced the disappointment we’ve had for various reasons, like the injury-riddled season we had last year. They’ve been through every possible emotion.”