FORT WORTH, Texas -- There's a popular saying among Florida gymnasts that can be heard more often than "Uptown Funk" is blared through the team's sound system.
"We got your back."
Alex McMurtry took those four words with her when she stood at the uneven bars last April 18 at the NCAA Women's Championships. Across the floor of the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena, the Utah women were bouncing up and down at the vault pit, as their performance on their final event put the Utes first in the team standings. The two-time defending champion Gators needed a pair of improbable 9.95s on both of their final bar routines to overtake the Utes' point total.
After Bridget Sloan nailed her 9.95 she looked toward McMurtry, the UF anchor, and did not say a word. Didn't need to. Their exchange of fist bumps spoke volumes. McMurtry's knuckles said, "Great job." Sloan's answered back, "You got this." McMurtry, the freshman in her first NCAA and Florida's final contestant of the meet, launched herself onto the bars. A near-flawless minute later, nailed a pressure-packed dismount to the shrieks from her teammates.
"I was terrified, but that was because it was all new to me. I had no idea what to expect," McMurtry said, recalling the frantic moments before her phenomenal routine that netted the Gators an historic third straight national title by a score of 197.850 to Utah's 197.800. "I didn't know if I would hit my routine, but I knew my teammates had my back."
The phrase carries a double entendre of sorts when applied to McMurtry. She is used to those around her "having her back," especially since those three cracks in her lumbar spine — the L-1, L-4 and L-5, to be specific — were found at the start of her sophomore year of high school in Virginia. The ensuing layoff of several months and the unwieldy, uncomfortable (and yes, unflattering) brace combined to challenge McMurtry's commitment to the sport with which she'd lived, breathed and excelled since she was three years old. When she finally was cleared to resume competition, her mind and desire to do so remained clouded by uncertainty.
"Just burned out, I guess," she said.
At 17 years old.
This weekend, the No. 2 Gators will be back at the very same Texas venue in hopes of defending their triple crown. McMurtry, who as a freshman was on a budget of three events because of her back, will be there as one of UF's four designated all-around competitors, a task she's be attempting for only the fourth time this season.
She's performed three times as an all-arounder, all with limited practice. Her back tends to stiffen after long hours of inactivity (such as lengthy study sessions or bus rides to meets) and on the third day following competition. The work of the team's health staff, its monitoring and treatment, have helped McMurtry net two consecutive 39.625 totals as an all-arounder, including taking runner-up to teammate Kennedy Baker at the Southeastern Conference Championships.
"That is not the norm," UF coach Jenny Rowland said.
During her two seasons, McMurtry has mostly skipped the floor exercise rotation — her favorite and arguably best event — because of the toll it takes on her body. But with a carefully crafted training plan, McMurtry and her coaches will have her ready for a full plate of high-stakes gymnastics the likes of which she's always embraced.
"Alex is a very special, unique young woman who exudes confidence in a very humble way. It's as if she has no idea of her talent, yet that talent, internal confidence and humility make her a performer that is very attractive to watch," Rowland said. "She came to us and said, 'I want to do floor,' so we talked about it and decided to give her a chance."
That's a long way from where McMurtry's head was not even three years ago.
It was fall of her sophomore season in Midlothian, Va., and McMurtry arrived at the gym one afternoon for her usual three hours of training. After stretching, she approached the beam — always the first event during practice — and found herself just sort of staring at the apparatus. And staring. And staring.
She walked out, got in her car and drove to Starbucks.
That became McMurtry's new workout routine.
"I couldn't figure it out," she said. "That was a hard couple months of my life."
She didn't tell her parents. Instead, she just came home some nights around 8 o'clock and acted like she'd been at practice and everything was normal. It wasn't until a coach from the gym called home to check on her that McMurtry's parents learned what was going on.
Her back wasn't the problem. Gymnasts are a mentally and physically tough lot who deal with L-5s and worse. Her father, David McMurtry, remembers seeing Alex studying at home one night with a No. 2 pencil tape to her hand as a splint for a finger she'd broken earlier in the day.
No, this was something more.
"Looking back on it, I think it was just something of a mental block where she just needed that next challenge," David McMurtry said. "There were times when she just questioned herself and those questions just mounted and mounted, based on her success, to the point where she had to come to terms with the expectations and make a decision."
In talking with her parents more and more, it became clear McMurtry's heart wasn't in the Elite gymnastics path — and certainly not the International Elite.
"She wanted to be a normal student," he said.
Her junior year, competing at Level 10, was spotted with a mostly light schedule — state, regional and national competitions — but took an exciting and accelerated turn halfway through when then-UF coach Rhonda Faehn broached the idea of McMurtry coming to Gainesville a year early. As it turned out, McMurtry needed just two extra classes to get her high school diploma.
She completed her work in August and two weeks later was enrolled at UF for the fall of '14. When she walked into the studio the Gators were two-time defending national champs and, again, loaded with talent.
"I got here and started doing skills I had never done before," said McMurtry, who credits Faehn for getting her out of a comfort zone and encouraging her to take chances. "I hadn't done my dismount on bars in almost two years and I remember — that first time — looking at my teammates and being just really scared and not sure whether I should go for it."
She went for it, all right. Nailed it, too.
"That's the day I became the gymnast they recruited," McMurtry said.
Then came that day last April when she became the gymnast who produced one of the greatest moments in program history.
"It was incredible to see her do that as a freshman," Sloan said. "What I loved about Alex that day, she wasn't out there for herself. She was going to do it for her everybody else. Alex was going to do it for her teammates."
They had her back. She had their's, also.
Now, Alex McMurtry and her back are bac, again for more.
"I think our team excels under pressure situations," she said. "For me, I just want to do what's best for my team. I love that it's back in Fort Worth. I love that we've been there before."