By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- For a lot of you, your only experience with gymnastics comes every four years when you watch the Summer Olympics. That's how I was. I had never been to a collegiate gymnastics meet. I didn't understand how it worked, or better yet, how did it draw so many fans every Friday night? Everybody who's been has told me how much they love it.
So I took the plunge. I attended Auburn's meet with Rutgers last Friday, fully unaware of what to expect. Sure, I knew the different events. But how was Auburn Arena filling up every week for a gymnastics meet? I had to go and see for myself.
My takeaway? It was awesome. From the lively atmosphere to the awe-inspiring feats that the gymnasts can do to the pageantry and passion, it more than lived up to the hype.
All I can say is I can't wait to go back.
`Go ahead and get rowdy'
The first thing that struck me Friday night was the environment. It wasn't your typical sold-out crowd like you'll see this Friday against Alabama because Rutgers isn't exactly a gymnastics powerhouse. But this was not the Olympics either. There's music playing during each event. The fans are loud. It felt more like I was at a basketball game.
"There's a misconception that gymnastics is like golf-clapping and stuff like that," Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. "Like you have to be quiet when they're on beam. In your first collegiate meet, you'll see that it's the exact opposite. Go ahead and get rowdy.
"What we want it to become is the thing to do on Friday night. We want students to show up because it's a fun atmosphere and you still get time to go do things afterwards. It's short, quick, gets you out of here, so families like it. You can bring your kids. It really appeals to about everybody.
"I love the atmosphere. I want it rowdy. I want it loud. It's sort of like an NBA arena."
Graba told me afterwards that the best teams in the country are the ones who have big, aggressive home crowds. It made perfect sense seeing the gymnasts feed off the energy from the crowd. Every time a girl stuck a landing, the place went crazy.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Gymnasties.
-- Greg Ostendorf (@greg_ostendorf) February 17, 2018
It's a group of college students that paint up and sit in the front row of every Auburn gymnastics meet. It started 11 years ago as a couple of guys who just wanted to paint up for something and get excited. Now it's grown to the point where they're having to turn people away at the door because there's not enough paint.
"We started with just having fun, and now we just really enjoy the sport, enjoy supporting the girls and giving them as much support as any of the other sports would get," Brandon Way said. "I think it's just surprising how exciting you can get for a girl sticking a landing."
"I didn't know anything about gymnastics before I started painting up, and now I love it," added fellow gymnasty Neiman Wagner. "It's like my favorite event to come to."
The passion doesn't go unnoticed either.
"We absolutely love the gymnasties," junior Taylor Krippner said. "Their crazy outfits or lack of. Their energy is amazing, especially when we're on vault and they're right there. We can hear all their cheers while we're going into the hurdle up to our vault. It really boosts our energy."
Maybe you're that person who sees gymnastics and thinks, `Yeah, I could do that.' I'll be the first to tell you -- you can't do that. I was amazed at what these women could do and their strength and athleticism. It's something you don't fully grasp unless you see it firsthand.
On the vault, they're literally sprinting full speed until they reach the springboard where they propel themselves over the vault table, and twist their bodies as they're flipping in the air. Do you know how much strength and concentration that would take to do?
"My favorite event is vault," freshman Jada Glenn said. "I'm a power gymnast. It's definitely something I can put all my power into."
Krippner's favorite event is the beam. What people might not realize is that the actual beam itself is only four inches wide. Four inches. I'm not sure I could walk across it without stumbling or falling off, and these girls are flipping in the air and landing on it. Now I might not be the most balanced person, but doing flips on a four-inch beam? No thanks.
"I think ultimately it's because of the challenge and the feeling I get when I stick a landing," Krippner said. "Knowing that it's such a tiny width, and we're flipping in the air and we can actually land on it without wobbling, it's an amazing feeling."
-- Auburn Gymnastics (@AuburnGym) February 19, 2018
My personal favorite might have been the bars (above), but the crowd favorite was easily when the Tigers performed their floor routine. The gymnasts get to pick their own music, so you see some of their personality come out. But when they'd sprint from one side of the mat to the other and do a flip, it was incredible the height they got on their jumps.
I asked Graba later, are you ever amazed at what these girls can do?
"I'm amazed at these girls all the time," he said. "We do get conditioned because gymnastics is its own worst enemy. They do stuff that's very difficult, but they make it look easy. You can a little bit immune to it.
"But I'm amazed at the other things. When somebody makes a mistake out there, and they're still able to recover. That's the stuff that maybe the normal fan didn't see. But that's where all the coaches look at each other and go, `OK, she's a cat.'"
After Friday, they're all "cats" in my eyes.
'What you do is for the team'
I've attended plenty of sporting events in my day, but I can't remember witnessing one that was as much fun as Friday's gymnastics meet.
The girls were having fun. The fans were having fun. I came in thinking that it would be intense and pressure-packed -- and there's still plenty of pressure on the gymnasts during each routine -- but you wouldn't know it as a common spectator.
The other great part of it that's different than club gymnastics is that you're part of a team. When one girls is on the bars or the beam, the rest of her teammates are standing right there and cheering her on. When it's over, regardless of the outcome, they run over to congratulate her. At one point, they formed a tunnel for Gracie Day to run through when she finished floor.
"What makes it exciting is what you do is for the team," Glenn said. "In club, it's just you. In college, what you do is for the team and knowing that you have your team there to support you and your team trusts you to be put up or thrown in any lineup is the best feeling."
"It's very important, especially if something out of the ordinary, mistake-wise, happens," added Krippner. "It's very nice to have their support. On the other side, when you're doing great and everyone is cheering you on, it just keeps the energy going. If you were by yourself doing that, it's really hard to create your own energy. But having the help of 18 others gymnasts around all having that same goal, it's very helpful."
How can you not love that kind of team camaraderie?
If you're like me and have not ever been to an Auburn gymnastics meet, I encourage you to go. This Friday is the perfect opportunity. The Tigers are hosting in-state rival Alabama, and the team is expecting one of the largest, most raucous crowds of the season. Way still remembers when Auburn beat Alabama in gymnastics two years ago.
"I want to say my top Auburn experiences, along with the Kick Six, was two years ago beating Alabama after a 20-year drought," he said. "I lost my mind, lost my voice. It was crazy."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: