Bridget Sloan conquers new arenas

Courtesy of University of Florida

Bridget Sloan took home the all-around and beam titles at last year's NCAA championships.

It was a sound completely foreign to her well-traveled ears.

She had won an Olympic silver medal in the gymnastics team competition in Beijing in 2008. She had won the all-around world championship in London in 2009. But Bridget Sloan had never had to deal with this.

Thunderous boos reverberated through LSU's Maravich Center during Florida's first road competition last season, and it was a rude awakening for Sloan, then a freshman getting a harsh hello in the world of college gymnastics.

"She was shocked people were booing her," Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said. "She had never heard anything like that before. She just thought everyone always clapped, even if they weren't rooting for you, because they appreciated great gymnastics."

Courtesy of University of Florida

After a surprising road reception, Bridget Sloan has settled in on the college scene.

One could argue Sloan grew as much in that moment as in any other in her career. She toughened up, used the animosity as fuel for an even better performance.

"She's that kind of athlete," Faehn said. "One who can get angry and use it to nail a routine."

And lift a team.

Sloan instantly became a crucial part of a Gators squad beelining toward a national title. But after using its highest score ever in SEC competition -- 198.00 -- to grab the conference title, things didn't quite go according to plan at the NCAA championships last April at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The Gators found themselves in a huge hole after two seemingly catastrophic falls on the beam and another on the floor.

Enter Sloan, who expunged the potential disaster, following the falls with a near-perfect floor routine to spring Florida its first gymnastics team championship.

"The national team is a great team, but college gymnastics is a very different atmosphere," said Sloan, who won the individual all-around title at the NCAA championships and later garnered the Honda Sports Award as the top college gymnast. "For USA, I was wearing the name of my country on my chest, which was amazing, but I was ultimately competing as an individual. At Florida, it's a true team. When I go out there, I have 12 other girls expecting me not to fall and to give a good performance."

Now part of what Faehn calls her Power Five (including fellow All-Americans Mackenzie Caquatto, Kytra Hunter and Alaina Johnson, as well as Bridgette Caquatto), Sloan has three more years to establish herself in the upper echelon of college gymnasts. And maybe even in the history books.

But it's important to note that Sloan is contributing just as much to the team outside of competition as she does within it.

"She's like Christmas," said Faehn, a former UCLA gymnast who is entering her 12th season as the Gators' coach. "Every time you see her she's a new package waiting to unveil something different."

Like the time she bailed the team out at nationals. Or the dance moves she busts out at practice, trying to recreate scenes from the movie "Pitch Perfect." Or the "Let's do it" attitude she brings to the team during tough times.

Sloan's gift to the Gators in 2014 may be her ability to adapt as a leader as different unknowns try to derail a team that enters unchartered territory. Until last season, Florida was always doing the hunting in a quest for a national championship. Now the Gators will be the hunted, and certainly will be presented with obstacles they've never encountered before.

"The main focus this preseason has been not to gun it," Sloan said. "One personal choice I've made is to work out with a strength coach twice a week in addition to our normal team practices. Hopefully this will allow me to stay healthy and give me enough endurance to get me through an even harder season."

Common sense would suggest Sloan, who is slated to graduate in the spring of 2016, might be on a trajectory to compete for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. She already is the only gymnast to win world, U.S. and NCAA all-around championships. And might she feel the tiniest bit of voids after pulling out of the 2012 Olympic trials with an injury to her elbow?

Not so fast. As of right now, Sloan says she's confident in her decision to put her elite career in the past. And to focus on her sophomore season with the Gators, which opens Saturday at UCLA.

"I'm at peace with my elite career," Sloan said. "I enjoyed every moment and I'm pretty content having it be over."

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