When the 2019 season began, the Oklahoma women’s gymnastics team found itself ranked No. 2 in the nation. After losing out to UCLA in the 2018 championships, the ranking seemed to be a good reminder of what the Sooners missed out on.
However, one week into the season, Oklahoma took over the top spot in the rankings and have yet to relinquish its grasp on it.
But for a school that has built itself into a title-or-bust program, Oklahoma only wants to be No. 1 in the most important week of the season. That is the final one.
“I'd say that's more of a mindset that this team has every single year,” OU junior Jade Degouveia said. “That's kind of the culture here at Oklahoma. You come into practice every single day and you come to this school wanting to win championships, so we carry that out into our practices, into our meets, and that's definitely just a mindset that we have every single year.”
Oklahoma has won three of the last six NCAA women’s gymnastics championships. The three times they didn’t win, they were runners-up twice and finished third in the other year.
For some programs, second place would be quite an accomplishment. But that is not the case for the Sooners under coach K.J. Kindler. Since she arrived in 2006, her goal was to build a program that could not only compete with the powerhouses of women’s gymnastics, but also build one of her own.
“This program is something special. I think the coaches really know how to develop an athlete into a national championship athlete,” junior Maggie Nichols said. “It's really cool to see, just because every single athlete that Oklahoma brings in is so different and so unique, but they can make that gymnast into their own unique national championship athlete. It's just so cool to see how the whole team comes together and every athlete is just so amazing, so I'm just really excited to see how this weekend goes.”
OU is at a point where it is considered a contender every season. And when OU doesn’t win, like last season, the team comes back with even more fire.
“We had that potential last year to win, but this year I think we've all been very motivated even since the beginning of preseason just to take that title, because we have the talent,” Nichols said. “We have the passion. We work so hard in the gym, so we just want to go up there this next weekend and lay everything out on the floor and just show everyone what we've been working so hard for.”
But Nichols pointed out this year has not gone by smoothly for the Sooners. Despite the No. 1 ranking and undefeated record, they have had to battle through a myriad of obstacles.
“It would just mean so much to me and the whole team to win,” Nichols said. “We've been working so hard this whole season, and we've had a lot of hardships this year, a lot of things we've had to overcome, but after every single one of those hardships, we've grown closer as a team and grown a lot stronger, so I'm just really excited to see how that strength comes together as a team and to see that chemistry come together and just to go out there and win it all.”
The national champions will be held April 19-20 at the Fort Worth Convention Center. The Sooners will be in the second semifinal of the day, along with No. 5 Denver, No. 8 Georgia, and No. 15 Oregon State.
The first semifinal will consist of No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 LSU, No. 6 Utah, and No. 7 Michigan.
The NCAA is using a new format this year to decide the champion. Gone are the days of the Super Six, which the Sooners had advanced to eight times in the program’s history.
Now, the top two teams from each semifinal will advance to the first-ever Four on the Floor. That means two fewer spots in the finals, which means teams have to be even more focused in the semis.
But Oklahoma says it is ready for the pressure that comes with the meet.
“I think we're looking amazing,” Degouveia said. “At this point, I think we've built up a lot of confidence in the gym. I think we've built up a lot of confidence out on the competition floor, and I think we're ready to translate that into our performance at nationals, so I'm really excited. The team looks great.”
The Sooners enter the 2019 NCAA Championships as the top-scoring team in the nation. They posted a 198.475 to win the Athens Regional Championships.
However, winning its regional was just the warm-up to what Oklahoma really wants. Which is to bring the gold hardware back to Norman.
“It spurs us a lot,” Degouveia said. “We're super excited to come back and get that title back this year. I think it's looking pretty good, but we'll see what happens.”