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  • About Jack Strickland

    Jack Strickland is a retired AP writer who was nominated by our newspaper for The Pulitzer Prize. His writing about Florida prisons, cancer victims, sports, and just plain folks is a special treasury for readers. He is active in the war against cancer. He, himself, is a survivor. As a reporter he covered many of the major stories in Florida. He lives in Gainesville where he is an advocate for cancer patients of all ages. Jack finds special joy in getting sports stars and teams involved in the care young cancer victims. He claims that the athletes benefit from the involvement as much as the patients. He says he managed to miss many tackles as a football player long ago, and learned that defeat can be temporary and serve as the foundation for success.
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    Jack Strickland's Florida Tales...

    Breathless comeback, tears of joy mark Gator victory in national gymnastics championships

    April 24, 2013

    Statewide

    By Jack Strickland

    They did it! The Florida Gator Gymnastics Team won the 2013 National Championship. They came from behind to win the elusive trophy this weekend at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. Hard work and the Gator team’s inimitable fun loving dedication to perfection were keys to their climb to the top and their impressive victory.

    The Gators got off to a rough start in their opening rotation at the Super Six national championship competition. Their first event was the balance beam. That’s a tough draw. Only one team in recent history has been able to go on to win the national championship when their first rotation at the Super Six was the balance beam.

    The Gator team was also impacted.They did not have a chance to get over the “pre-game jitters” before they had to perform on the challenging beam. The gymnastics world was shocked when two Gator All Americans fell.

    Their resulting team score on the beam was the lowest posted by any of the six teams competing in the finals at Los Angeles. TV analysts and most other experts wrote the Gators off. It appeared they were in such a deep hole they had no chance to win.

    Gator Coach Rhonda Faehn was not discouraged. In the locker room between rotations she may have done her best coaching job of her outstanding career. She looked each of her girls in the eyes and said, “We can do it. We can STILL do this! We’ve got this!”

    She convinced them and she inspired them. They became believers. They had a purpose. They came to Los Angeles to capture the crown. They were going to settle for nothing less. They went back out onto the arena floor and tallied the highest scores of any team in each of the remaining three rotations.

    Thousandths of a point

    The final score was close and it was measured in thousandths of a point. The Gators’ final rotation was the uneven parallel bars and their performance was awesome.

    When the final Gator on the bars excelled and nailed her dismount, Gator fans held their breath as the score was tallied.  Was it enough?

    Gator fans watching a live stream telecast focused on Randy Stageberg. She is a team leader who became the team spark plug and leading cheerleader when a shoulder injury ended her college athletic career on the eve of this year’s post season competition.

    The final results had not been tallied. But, Stageberg could see the scoreboard and all of the individual scores. She is a smart girl. She had done the math. She knew the winner. Stageberg was sobbing like a baby.  Colorful fan favorite Marissa King, who poured her heart and soul into this Gator team, was standing next to Stageberg.

    She was crying. the camera focused on Coach Faehn. She had tears in her eyes. The hearts of Gators fans everywhere sank. These deserving athletes had come so close, again, to claim the ultimate prize, only to fall a few thousandths of a point short.

    Then all Hell broke loose. Final scores were tallied and posted. Everyone in the arena, and those watching live on computers, were told what the Gator team had already figured out. Florida is the 2013 National Champion.

    The team was on a mission

    Those Gator tears were tears of joy. So much hard work had gone into this season. This team was on a mission and they did it. The floodgates of emotion broke and thrilling joy overflowed.

    It has been a season to remember. These magnificent Champions left their mark on everyone who saw them perform. They have been a joy and a real inspiration both on and off the floor. Perhaps the feelings of Gator fans were best spoken by a little girl, who appeared to be five or six, who was sitting with her mother in the stands on Senior Night at O’Connel Center.

    The little fan was crying and was inconsolable. She announced that she was sad because it was their “last time” and she didn’t want to see them go. She said Ashanee (Dickerson) is “the best one” and Marissa (King) is her hero. Please don’t let them go, she wailed. Fans sitting around her felt the same way but are too big to cry.

    Dali Lemezan and Randy Stageberg are also seniors who played major roles in building the national championship program at Florida. They will be sorely missed.They richly deserve that gaudy national championship ring that is on the way and it will look good on their fingers.

    It was a team victory. There are no individuals on this team. All year there has been an atmosphere of all for one and one for all. Coach Faehn called this squad a “fun Team” and one of the smartest she has coached in her eleven years at Florida.

    Team ‘socked it to ‘em’

    Emblematic of this team’s colorful, fun-loving, personality is their “funky socks.”

    In warm ups and when they were not competing, and were cheering on their teammates, they wore colorful knee socks. They were frequently brightly colored stripes or loud polka dots. They wore them mismatched to the glee of Gator fans.

    For the Super Six, they broke out attention getting orange and blue plaid socks. They wore them on the podium to accept the National Championship Trophy and in the official champion’s pictures.

    Gator fans are scurrying around trying to find a pair of those socks to wear with the championship tee shirts and hats that are already on retail store shelves. Older fans who have waited decades to celebrate a Gymnastic’s National Championship were refusing to take “no” for an answer in their quest to get those socks.

    One co-ed from years gone by said she had seen her male acquaintances scale the outside walls of Broward Hall, to the fourth floor, during the Turbulent Sixties Panty Raids. “Don’t tell me ya’ll can’t get me those Funky Socks,” she demanded.

    Her companion retorted, “Yes we did all that. But back then, we were young and foolish and had no fear of the penitentiary.” With Visa card in hand, he pleaded with the store clerk, “Where can I order those funky socks?”

    Coach is ‘all that and much more’

    The celebration by gleeful Gator fans will continue throughout the off season. There is one more victory to celebrate. Coach Rhonda Faehn should be designated as the Coach of the Year. No coach in any sport has ever deserved the award more.

    For the 2013 Gators, winning the National Championship is “the cherry on top of the cake.” It signifies unparalleled success for years of hard work and dedication in striving toward the goal to be the very best.

    For Coach Faehn it must be all of that and much more. She competed in college at UCLA which is, year in and year out, one of the nation’s top gymnastics programs.

    Coach Faehn earned All America honors, there, competing in Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, at Los Angeles, where UCLA hosted the 2013 national gymnastics championship competition. UCLA placed fourth in the final national standings.

    Coach Faehn is the little girl from Minnesota who blossomed into the lovely lady who took California by storm and captured the hearts of people at Florida. She is undeniably one of the best coaches in America in any sport.

    It is clear that she has a close bond with her team. It will be hard for her to say good-bye to this year’s seniors. She will be like the little girl on senior night that pleaded, “I don’t want them to go.”

    In the dark hours, may she find comfort in knowing the best is yet to be.