NCAA birth changes atmosphere for U

by Susan Filkins

Peik Gymnasium, the practice home of the Gophers women’s gymnastics team, looks a little different these days.
Take for example the “Congratulations Gopher Gymnasts” sign that hangs on the wall of the gym, given to the team from members of the 10.0 fan club. Another unlikely occurrence was the presence of TV cameras from the local media that were taping practice for the evening news.
There is no doubt things in the gym have been different. And for very good reason.
The increased hype is a result of the Gophers qualifying for the NCAA championships for the first time in the history of the program.
The attention the team is receiving is like nothing Minnesota women’s gymnastics has experienced before.
“It’s been kind of weird,” junior Mindy Knaeble said. “Usually we get like two TV cameras out here a year, and we just got like four in one day.”
Then again it’s not everyday that the Gophers qualify for nationals. And the team is relishing its time in the limelight.
Minnesota will take the floor tonight on the national stage in Gainesville, Fla., for the first time since former Gopher Marie Roethlisberger competed and won the national title in the uneven bars in 1990.
Minnesota qualified for nationals after scoring a 195.125 in the NCAA Central Regionals two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Gophers finished fourth in their region, but their score was good enough to qualify them for nationals.
Gophers coach Jim Stephenson said the feat will do wonders for the program’s reputation.
“The notoriety that we are going to receive just by having our name mentioned at the national championships is going to help us in significant ways,” Stephenson said. “It is very likely that this is the beginning that will help accelerate our program even farther forward.”
Having the opportunity to compete at nationals is all that matters for Minnesota, and placing in the event is something it is not concerned about.
“We are just going to show off what Minnesota can do with our gymnastics. We really have no thoughts about what we are going to score, who we are going to beat, or where we are going to rank,” Stephenson said. “Our plan is to give 100 percent with our performance.”
With dominant gymnastics programs like UCLA, Alabama, Utah, and Georgia leading the way, Minnesota will have its hands full. The Gophers must also contend with No. 1 Michigan, their largest Big Ten rival.
A total of 12 teams will compete in the opening day of competition. The even-seeded teams will compete this afternoon, and the odd-seeded teams will perform this evening.
The six best scores will then qualify for the Super Six meet slated for Friday evening. The gymnasts who qualify in single events will compete in the individual championships on Saturday evening.
Despite the stiff competition, the Gophers are taking their accomplishments in stride and trying to concentrate on enjoying their first-ever time in the national spotlight.
“I am so excited that it actually happened,” Knaeble said. “We worked so hard, and out of the three years that I have been here, this is by far the best we have ever done. And it feels great.”
Stephenson concurred. He will make his first appearance at nationals since leaving Utah where he was the assistant coach when the Utes went to nationals in 1990 and 1992.
One thing is for sure, though. After nationals this weekend, Minnesota women’s gymnastics will never be looked at in quite the same way.
“This is going to give us the reputation that we deserve,” Knaeble said. “Before people looked at us like, ‘Oh, Minnesota.’ And now that we are going to nationals they can say, ‘Minnesota. They are one of the top teams in the country.'”