NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Given a choice, the soon-to-be teen opted for a Little Rock performance of a famous play and her younger sister chose a sporting event.
I knew what to expect from "West Side Story," but was in the dark about the Southeastern Conference gymnastics championships. At the risk of losing the man card, the latter was a showcase for exceptional athletes from Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Georgia, who compete as fiercely as football players from those schools do in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December.
Previous observation of the sport was the occasional look-in on a telecast from Moscow or Seoul or Atlanta or Athens or London every four years. Able to see the entire floor from the second row in Section 114, the SEC event was superior.
The parallel bars and the vault were smack in front of us and even a novice learns quickly that the competitors complete those before the teams competing in the floor exercise and on the beam. Those events were at the other end of the arena, but easier to see than a touchdown scored in the opposite end zone.
At this competition, there was no dawdling by participants or spectators. There were 96 individual performances in 90 minutes and the only down time came when a dozen or so teammates left their holding areas and followed a young lady carrying high their team placard to the next event. Upon arrival, the six participating had 3 1-2 minutes to warm up. Time up, the judges were told to "Please, take control of your event."
They did. The competitors stayed put until they get the go-ahead, a hand signal for the bars, a green flag for those waiting to sprint toward the vault. Scores were posted quickly and each judge revealed their take.
Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri — seeds 5-8 — competed in the afternoon session before a crowd heavy with Pig Sooiee. Many did not return for the 6 p.m. go-around, forfeiting an opportunity to compare the Razorbacks to the best in the land.
At the break, we drove a few miles to munch fresh burgers and free peanuts. Passing on the second session was never mentioned.
The 1-4 seeds were more seamless on the bars, more acrobatic on the 39-by-39 mat, more solid on the 4-inch wide beam.
During the afternoon, the fans embraced the Razorbacks and applauded the others. In the evening, there were biased pockets of applause. A contestant knows when she nails a routine; so do her teammates and coaches, and they all react accordingly. Knowledgeable fans applaud a 9.9-plus when the routine is complete and again when the stanchion with the four-digit score is slowly rotated.
For all to see, there is a team camaraderie that seems genuine. From afar, the coaches appear to offer only encouraging words.
The finish to the meet was gripping. Going into the final rotation, Florida had 148.375, Alabama had 148.350, and LSU 147.325. LSU faltered on the beam. Like a golfer who posts a target score, Alabama completed the vault, then congregated to watch Florida’s final three athletes perform choreography and tumbling a few yards away. I wondered if anybody said something similar to the fan behind us when Arkansas was chasing Auburn: "We need two Auburn girls to fall flat on their faces." He quickly apologized.
Each of the Florida performers scored 9.9, good enough to repeat as league champion.
The 10-year-old next to me, the one who wore bright lime shorts under a frilly dress to a big-deal gathering because she planned to do cartwheels on the dance floor, never left her seat. Enthralled, she deleted some video from her phone, replaced it with Florida on the bars and Alabama on the vault, and sent it to her mother.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.