As they stood on the gymnastics equivalent of a sideline, Boise State gymnasts could only watch in horror as Cal stuck landing after landing on the bars.
It was the 2016 NCAA Regionals in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Broncos were attempting to make their first team appearance at the NCAA Championships in school history. The top two teams from each of six regions earn a bid to nationals; host Alabama easily took the top spot, leaving the final spot to Cal or Boise State.
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The Broncos had a bye as Cal performed its final event, the uneven bars. The Golden Bears stuck perfect landings; the Broncos, meanwhile, had their share of less-than-ideal finishes during the day. A step here and a step there slowly lowered their scores.
With each rotation on the bars, Boise State co-head coach Tina Bird saw her team’s odds diminish. Cal ultimately edged the Broncos by .175 points. It was like losing on a buzzer-beater.
Cal traveled to nationals, and Boise State went home. While several factors were in play, Bird knew landings were a culprit.
“With every score and every time (Cal) stuck a landing, we were like, ‘Oh.’ … All we had to do was stick two landings and it would have been a whole different story,” Bird said. “We missed some on every event. I don’t think we stuck any on vaults, and we missed at least two landings on bars and at least two on beams, if not more. It’s definitely frustrating.”
Since returning from that Alabama regional, the Broncos have worked tirelessly to ensure landings don’t get in the way this weekend at the NCAA Regional in Lincoln, Neb. The field includes No. 1 seed LSU, No. 2 Boise State, No. 3 Nebraska, No. 4 Arizona, No. 5 Iowa State and No. 6 Minnesota. The top two teams qualify for nationals April 14-15 in St. Louis.
Landing has been a sticking point for Boise State, ranked No. 11 nationally, since the offseason began. How does one get better at landings other than constant repetition? Part of it is a change in strength and conditioning and understanding the demands of absorbing impact.
According to the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, a gymnast can experience up to 14 times her bodyweight in impact with each landing. Ben Jaeger, the team’s strength coach, has changed the Broncos’ work out plan from a year ago. Lifting heavy weight does not help the impact on a gymnast’s ankles. Lifting with body weight, on the other hand, gives more of a realistic feel and helps simulate the force of landing.
“We aren’t lifting as much weight. We’re doing a lot of body weight stuff and we’re doing a lot of running drills and cardio, and a lot of landing stuff,” senior Mackenzie Bennion said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of weight in gymnastics, but we are doing body weight constantly. So we’re focusing more on the body weight stuff.”
Also added to the agenda was jumping off higher platforms. The goal was to strengthen ankles and to make landings less of a burden.
“We started doing a lot of landings, off higher objects onto the floor, onto different surfaces as well,” Bennion said. “Just to get used to all different kinds of landings that we could do.”
Jeager knew rough landings were an issue, so he built his program around making them better.
“It was a weakness for us last year, so I tried to develop some ways through our weight room development that we could improve our landings. We did that in a variety of ways,” Jaeger said. “In order to do it well in competition, you have to practice it with intent. And that was something that we really focused on in the offseason. Constantly practicing it the right way.”
“Practicing it the right way” means constant repetition. It also means each gymnast holding her landing for three seconds, according to Bennion. Positive results have followed.
According to Bird, the most stuck landings in a meet last season was around five. At the 2017 Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Championships, Bird said that number jumped to 10 en route to a third straight league title. Their team score of 197.050 was a program record at a conference championship.
Heading into regionals this weekend, Boise State is loaded with confidence. After having their hearts ripped out a year ago because of landings, the Broncos feel prepared for anything.
“It’s not frustrating anymore, because we have those landings down now,” Bennion said. “We’re ready to roll.”