April 25, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to NCAA.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --
It all started with an email.

Marissa King, a gymnast in the 2008 Bejing Olympic Games for England, was interested in crossing the Atlantic pond to attend school at the University of Florida. Soon, Florida coach Rhonda Faehn was on her way east for what became a fruitful recruiting trip.

Saturday, King finished up a record freshman season by placing fourth in the vault and fifth on the floor exercise in the individual finals portion of the NCAA Division I Women‘s Gymnastic Championships.

“Her energy out there was really captivating,” Faehn said.

King earned four All-America honors at the championships, including first team All-America in the vault and floor exercise. She drew a roar from the Florida crowd for her floor exercise Saturday.

“I had so many coaches coming up to me and commenting about her energy,” Faehn said. “She was the life of the competition.”

At the 2008 Olympics, King -- the 2009 British vault champion – competed in the all-around competition.

“It’s a whole different experience,” said King, asked to compare competing in the NCAA Championships with the Olympics. “The Olympics is phenomenal, but this is a whole new ballgame. … There’s such a team aspect to it, which I love. That’s what these finals today were really like – enjoy the last competition, have some fun.”

NEXT STOP, CLEVELAND: A contingent of Kent State University staffers, including women’s gymnastic coach Brice Biggin, and members of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission attended the championships all week because next year the national championships are headed north for the first time since 1992, when Minnesota hosted.

The event will be held at Cleveland State’s Wolstein Center, but Kent State – a Mid-American Conference school located about 35 miles south of Cleveland – will be the host school. It will be a precious gift for a school from the MAC, which rarely hosts national championships.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity,” said Biggin, whose team placed fifth (three spots out of an NCAA Championships berth) at a regional this year hosted by West Virginia. “We’ve never had a women’s national championship (in gymnastics) even remotely close to the area. We’re very excited about the opportunity.”

“This might be something they (Cleveland-area gymnastics fans) won’t get to see for 20, 25 years,“ said Alan Ashby, Kent State’s athletics director of communication.

Cleveland was the host city for the 2007 NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four, but that event was held at Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers.

Laurie Cannon, NCAA spokesperson, said Cleveland was chosen for the gymnastics national championships as a part of the NCAA’s championship cities program.

University of Florida women’s gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn, whose school hosted the championships this year for the third time in school history, had a one-word piece of advance for Kent State officials: marketing. “Market it as much as possible,” she said.

“I think it’ll be interesting,” Faehn said. “I think it’ll be exciting. We‘re looking forward to it.”

Hosting the championships is certain to be a boost to Kent State’s gymnastics program, which had a 14-4 record this season, including 6-0 in MAC competition.

“It certainly will be something we talk about it,” Biggin said. “What a phenomenal opportunity for our program.”

WANTED: CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: So what’s a gymnast to do after winning 60 career events, winning the all-around and balance beam at a national championship and being named Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Year?

Susan Jackson, a senior at Louisiana State who was on the USA national team four times, is thinking Cirque de Soleil. She once saw a traveling version of the internationally acclaimed show in Baton Rouge, La., and immediately became hooked.

“I’m not ready for the real world yet,” joked Jackson, a mass communications major.

WOODEN MAGIC: While legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, now 99 years old, was not able to attend this year’s championships, at which UCLA won its sixth NCAA title Friday night, he has been a mainstay at UCLA’s home meets.

UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field calls Wooden a mentor for the gymnastics program, and has brought many of the coach’s values to her own program.

“We’re the team at UCLA that is the closest to Coach Wooden,” said Kondos Field.

“His definition of success is something that we live by.“

The connection goes beyond the tumbling mat. Kondos Field, wife of UCLA Associate Athletics Director Bobby Field (a former UCLA football assistant coach), would personally drive Wooden to the Bruins’ home football games.

Friday night, after the Bruins won the team national title, Kondos Field was spewing Wooden-isms in her happiness: “It’s not like we found a cure for cancer tonight; we won a gymnastics meet,” she said.