The Auburn gymnastics team arrives home to a warm welcome Sunday night
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Caitlin Atkinson says the welcome home on the tarmac at Auburn University Regional Airport was the perfect ending to a successful weekend for the Tigers' gymnastics team.
The All-American helped Auburn make the Super Six at the NCAA Championships for the first time in 22 years, and, Sunday night, Auburn fans and athletic personnel cheered the team as it arrived.
"Coming back to this welcoming was just amazing," Atkinson said. "I really wasn't expecting it getting off the plane. It's great to have friends and have this family. To have them welcome me back to my second home is great."
Auburn qualified for the Super Six on Friday and competed in the main event on Saturday night. The Tigers finished sixth then, and Atkinson was still performing individually Sunday on the beam, where she finished eighth nationally. Friday, she tied for third in the all-around.
"The weekend was great. There were ups and downs to it, but Friday night, being with the team, making history by making the Super Six, was amazing. There couldn't have been a better feeling," she said.
Auburn broke all sorts of school records on the way to the NCAA Championships.
"You think about last night and how close you were," Jay Jacobs, Auburn's Director of Athletics, told the team Sunday night. "We appreciate the championship-level of competition you brought."
Coach Jeff Graba heard similar praise on the floor of the Super Six.
"I don't know what these guys are going to do in the off-time, but I know what they did for this program," he said at the airport. "I had four, five, six coaches on the floor from other national championship teams basically say, 'This is a new Auburn. This a completely different Auburn.' And that's a good thing. I'm just excited and grateful for what these girls have done. It's not the coaching staff -- we're helping them -- it's them.
"I was telling the girls on the plane: I really can't come to grips of how proud of this team I am and how much we love them. This is an amazing year, and it's just wrapping up, and I still haven't figured out that we made Super Six yet. It's amazing."
Auburn made the NCAA Championships for the fourth time in school history by qualifying at a regional in Auburn Arena two weeks ago.
"It was an uphill battle just to make nationals. We made that," Graba said. "It was a super-human effort to make Super Six, and we did. You have to relish that when that happens."
Graba said Super Six "was an emotional rollercoaster for our girls."
And, "we're going to build on that.
"Being 20th last year and being sixth this year is a pretty big jump."
Graba said his team mostly slept on the way back in the university plane.
"I can't think Jay enough for putting this flight together for us," he said. "Most of the powerful programs do this, and the whole administration has jumped behind us to help us compete at the highest level. I told them on the floor of the Super Six if we hadn't flown in we would have been exhausted."
Instead, Auburn touched down looking ahead.
"The fact we were still there Saturday night means we can say we were one of the best teams in the nation, and I think that will help prepare us for next year," Atkinson said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine