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Talking with the Gym Dogs: Midseason Report

We got a chance to interview some Gym Dogs and Coach Durante this week; this is what they had to say

Rachel Dickson
John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports Communications

Welcome back, Gym Dog fans! I can barely believe I’m typing this, but the regular season is almost half over! The Georgia Gym Dogs have 11 regular-season meets, and they’ve now completed 5 of them. This timing works out pretty well for me, though, since I was able to make the time this week to attend the Gym Dogs’ weekly media availability session. (As I mentioned in my season preview series, the UGA Sports Communication Department has been very gracious in allowing me to participate in the gymnastics team’s weekly media activities this year.)

We’ve seen a lot of stories and surprises pop up this year, from the first week head-scratcher against LSU and the gradual build-up and improvement afterwards, to the emergence of several surprise contributors and anchors on our team. So, this week, I got to catch up with Coach Durante on where she feels that the team stands right now, what they need to improve on, and we even delved into a couple of other areas I’ve been wanting to ask her about, like recruiting.

In addition to my interview with Coach Durante, I was able to chat with several Gym Dogs to discuss their season to this point and their experiences. (I chose the interviewees, not the SID team, so if you think I made bad choices, blame me, not them!) I was able to chat with juniors Vivi Babalis and Hayley Sanders, and freshman Rachel Dickson.

As I do with most of my other interviews on this site, instead of giving you the abridged, “carefully crafted to tell a story that I want to tell” version of the interview, I prefer to give you a full transcript, and then give you my take on what was said after that. That way, you can see what we said for yourself and draw your own different conclusions, if you’d like.

The transcripts below are lightly edited, but almost entirely for clarity - to remove things like vocal pauses (um, ahh, weeelll) and the like. Sometimes, I add some explanations in (parentheses), and a few times (especially with Coach Durante, who kind of speaks in shorthand a lot), I’ve filled in the blanks [with phrases in brackets like this] when a term or sentence isn’t really clear on its own. But if it isn’t in parentheses or brackets, then it’s the exact words from the interview.

So, with that covered, let’s get to the discussion with the head coach!

Danna Durante

Emily Selby/UGA Sports Communications

The Transcript:

VineyardDawg: Thank you for taking some time to meet with me.

Danna Durante: Sure. Of course!

VYD: First question, you might have heard it a million times, but I'm going to ask you, too: Why did you only have 5 competitors on bars and floor in the Mizzou meet?

DD: I'm really glad you asked that question. I heard afterwards that there were some fans, longtime season ticketholders, that were just like, "Oh my goodness! How can we only have 5??" And in that moment, we believed that it was absolutely the best thing to do for this team. We knew those 5 were going to kill it. We had complete and total confidence in those 5, and they had confidence in themselves. And the next person up, when we lost Sabrina [Vega] on floor, we lost Syd[ney Snead] on bars [and floor], we lost Nat[alie Vaculik] on bars. So we lost 2 competitors on each of those events. That 7th or 8th person was just not ready. And so you take the risk of putting that person out there, damaging their progress, their development, their confidence. Because they're not prepared, and we know this going in. And you also take the chance of rattling the rest of that lineup, because you're putting someone in there who's not really prepared and asking them to step it up. Had that person been prepared, then no question. Had we known that they were ready to go, they'd been nailing it for the last several weeks in practice - no problem. That wasn't the case. So, we had complete confidence in those 5; we knew they were going to do a great job. And it really just kept the flow of that lineup going. It's not ideal, and it's not something you want to have to do, but again, we knew that those ladies were just going to knock it out of the park.

VYD: When I had done my recap of the meet, I had said, "You know, we talked about this 'situational gymnastics' thing back in the fall. Is that a situational gymnastics thing where you as the coaches tell them, 'You've only got 5, you gotta hit, you can't miss.' Is that what's going on here?"

DD: Yeah, well, we certainly don't term it in that way as "you can't miss," but if we're doing team beam and there's 4 ladies [having gone without a fall], we want 5 in a row. So it's not just you 4, but it's that extra one. So it's not just "we only need 5." And people say, "we only need 5." Well, yes, but you want to have complete and total confidence that if I had to go 10, whomever we put up or however many numbers we're after, we're going to nail it every single time. And that's the case for really every event right now. We feel like we've got 5-6 really strong, they're going to nail it every single time. And actually we have 7... we just happen to have lost 2 on those 2 events in that one day.

VYD: And on beam, you were able to fill that spot, since both Sabrina Vega and Sydney Snead were both out.

DD: That's right, we had Morgan Reynolds and Rachel Dickson, who were ready. So we slid those ladies in and they were ready to go. Same with Beth Roberts on vault. She was ready to go. And all 3 of those ladies in those spots did a great job and really filled that hole exactly like we would expect them to do.

VYD: That was one of the questions I had for you; about the ladies being able to step in and pick up the slack and get the job done even though you have a lot of folks that are out.

DD: Yeah. For Friday, the whole meet, and that whole week, was about competing for something bigger than ourselves, with it being our cancer meet. We'd talked on Thursday [and asked the gymnasts], "Who else are you competing for besides your teammates?" And everybody had somebody that they were going to be competing for in addition to their teammates. So when we had these 3 teammates who were also going to be out, we said, "Ok, we're going to expand that. We're now competing for them, too. Let's go shine for them."

VYD: Related to that, Morgan and Rachel stepped in (on beam and floor)... they did a pretty good job, right? Is that going to put some pressure on Sabrina and Sydney when they're able to come back? Are they going to have to fight for their spot in the lineup again? 'Cause I mean, you can't do a whole lot better than a 9.95 for Rachel on floor, right?

DD: That's right... that's tough to beat! It absolutely puts us in an interesting situation, and it's a great situation to have. I think, do they have to fight for their spots back? Well, they only lost it because they were ill or hurt, but every day is about competition in here. So I think as they ease back in, they will ease back into that competition, and when they're ready and it's a healthy fight for that spot, the best athlete will go on the floor. This team, one thing I will say about them is that they absolutely have each other's back, but they also absolutely want the best competitor on the floor. Even though they all want that spot, they want the best competitor on the floor and they're going to support whomever that is.

VYD: When we spoke back in the fall, you talked about how "there's a plan in place," and how from literally the last team meeting after the 2016 season, you wanted to have a goal to be national championship caliber. I remember you saying from that last teem meeting of 2016, "We want to do better than 5th, and how do we make that happen." How is that plan working so far this season?

DD: I would say it's working really well. Especially coming out of our first meet that didn't go how we wanted, we had an opportunity to either freak out and go, "Oh my gosh none of this is working," or "Eh, that's not who we really are. Let's get back on track," which is how this team took it. It was one not-so-great meet, and it's not going to define us the whole regular season if we don't let it. So they've been really good about staying the course. That's not to say that we haven't made little tweaks here and there where we needed. We saw areas that we needed to be better in, and we made those tweaks. But I'd say that the process is working. Their mindset - and we talked about this in the fall - is key. I know that the way they came in all fall... really to just step across this threshold [from the outside world into the gym] and give everything they had... put them in a position to do what they did on Friday, where three are out and it doesn't matter. Next man up, here we go, we got your back, let's do it. I know their work in the fall, both in the gym and as a team, made absolutely all the difference on Friday, and will also make that difference as we continue to climb [the rest of the season].

VYD: Kind of a related question, but how did the team turn it around after LSU? 'Cause that was a pretty loud thud to start the season, right?

DD: Yeah. It was a really interesting week following LSU, and I think it was emotional for a lot of us. We were like, "Wow... ok, what was that?" But as a coaching staff, we left it in the rear-view mirror, and the told the ladies that, too. Like, just, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going re-hash that. We're going to move forward. And here's what we noticed, what did you all notice, great, let's go. And we all just committed, honestly. I think that meet made them stronger, made them closer, and made them tougher. They were just committed to staying the course and "That is not who we are, so let's go compete." And in a manner that is consistent with who we are and all of the work that we've done up to this point. I'm a firm believer that adversity, if you take lessons from it, it makes you better. And your biggest growth spurts come from your greatest pain, whether it's in life or in sport. Absolutely, whole-heartedly believe that. And that [meet] was painful for all of us. But I think we took the lessons, this is how it's going to make us better, and we're just gonna keep moving forward.

VYD: I wanted to ask you about beam, also, since you're the beam coach. We've been a lot more consistent this year other than that "meet we don't talk about." What are some of the reasons for that?

DD: That was the driving force behind [our focus on] mindset, and why we had to come into the fall with a different mindset. Every event presents its own great challenges, but the way you approach it competitively every day in the gym makes a huge difference. We needed to be better about the way we were approaching beam every day in the gym, and I needed to be better about the way I was coaching them. So, there was a serious commitment to holding that standard really high in the fall. "This is the way we train beam. This is not acceptable and this is acceptable." And I think, honestly, we had all of them go, "oh, yeah." And we actually finished last season in a really great place, and I think that set the foundation for coming in. The team actually said in the fall, we want to pick up where we left off, and that's being positive and being confident. So that helped set the tone for the fall, as well. So yes, they have been much more consistent, but it's in the way they approach training every single day. When we approach training that way, then competition is easy... it's the icing on the cake.

VYD: I'd like to switch topics a little bit and talk about recruiting, because that's one of the things, I have to admit, I'm not real big in following gymnastics recruiting!

DD: Yeah! It's a little crazy right now.

VYD: One of the things I'm most interested in is how we've established a little Canadian recruiting pipeline. I think, as far as I'm aware, before Brittany Rogers came, we hadn't had many, or any Canadian Gym Dogs before. Is that right?

DD: [#WellActually], Lori Strong was back in the '90's. And there've been a couple, but not very many.

(VineyardDawg now both verbally and mentally eats his pride, since Lori Strong-Ballard was on the '93 national championship team, won the NCAA individual bars championship in '94, won the SEC All-Around title in '96, was a 7-time First Team All-American, was the only Gym Dog before Brittany Rogers to compete in 2 Olympic games, and was also inducted into the UGA Circle of Honor in February 2014. Every long-time Gym Dog fan knows who Lori Strong-Ballard is. I guess I just didn't realize she was from Canada.)

DD: So after Lori, Brit was here, of course, and Anysia Unick is also Canadian, and she came in as a gymnast (in the same signing class with Rogers) before she [had to retire from the sport with a foot injury]. And yes, we have expanded that.

VYD: So, is that an intentional focus for you now, to reach out and pick the best gymnasts from Canada?

DD: Yes. So, when we took over [at UGA]... any time there's a coaching change, I think recruiting, it just... I'm not sure how to say it... there's just a shift, right? And we're recruiting extremely early. So right now, we're looking at 8th and 9th graders, and at that point it was probably 10th graders, and some 9th graders. And so, with that coaching change... (long pause)... Gosh! I don't know how to word this so I don't get myself in trouble! It just was going to take some time for us [the coaching staff] to establish ourselves at Georgia. Even though I had been coaching for 15 years, and had a great reputation among club coaches, and the same with Phil [Ogletree, asst. coach]. And Jay [Hogue, Danna's other asst. coach] had only been [coaching at the collegiate level] for a few years, but he had a great reputation... we all had a great reputation. But there's just a time period where you have to establish yourself. So sometimes that takes time, and maybe you're not getting that athlete from the U.S. that you thought you could get. And so we wanted to make sure we were expanding, and we were going after those athletes in the States, but we were also going after some of Canada's greatest as well.

VYD: Sure... the True North Strong and Free!

DD: Yes! Yes. So it turned out that there were several situations where it was just the right fit. (To the SID staff nearby) Does that sound good? So that I'm not getting myself in trouble? (The answer is yes.)

VYD: OMG, I can. not. believe. you said that! No no, joking of course.

DD: I know. Because what I really want to say, I can't say! Not on record.

VYD: Gotcha. I understand. So is the Canadian pipeline something that you're going to try to keep expanding and getting the best and the brightest from Canada?

DD: If they're the right fit, absolutely. But for us, Georgia has a brand that we can recruit nationwide and internationally. So that's certainly a blessing for us, but that athlete has to be the right fit for us, which is: hard worker, motivated. You have to be highly motivated to come here because there's so much of your time that you're on your own, and you have to have those goals on your own. People of great character, that's huge for us. Willingness and desire to challenge yourself and excel in all areas. So if those are the right fit, whether you're from the States or from Canada or international, we want the very best athletes and the very best people that fit Georgia.

VYD: You mentioned that you're targeting 8th and 9th graders, and recruiting really early in that process. One of the things that's become a trend in the last couple of years with changes in the NCAA rules [about Olympic compensation not voiding college eligiblity] is that more and more Olympians are competing in college. How does that affect your recruiting process?

DD: That's a great question. Emily Schild is an example of that; she competed at Olympic trials (in 2016) and she'll be coming into UGA in the fall. If we're recruiting them that young, they're committing before we know how far in that path they're going to be able to go. Which, that might be one of the benefits to this early (young) recruiting. If you get behind an athlete that really fits your culture, and is about what you want and they're excited about Georgia, and you get to support and follow them all the way through that process. And if they end up on [their national] team or at the Olympic trials, wow, that's exciting! They're really good when you're recruiting them, of course, but you can't predict the future, obviously. But there are more [Olympic-level gymnasts choosing to compete in college]. And I think their interest in getting connected with a college is really exciting when they're young. And of course there is the possibility that some will go pro if you're a Simone Biles or a Laurie Hernandez. But those others are really excited about the team dynamics and finishing their career in a different setting, in feeling like they accomplished what they wanted to in the Elite world and then getting to finish strong in the team environment [in college], so I love it. I think it continues to raise the collegiate gymnastics level and the excitement.

VYD: (Explains how I'm asking everybody I interview on this team about leadership.) How do you feel that this team's leaders have been emerging/stepping up?

DD: Great question. In the fall, it's so easy to assume that the seniors are going to be the leaders. And sometimes that can be [an unfair expectation] to put on a particular class just because they're seniors. But honestly, everybody has the opportunity to be a leader. We don't choose captains. So, we gave them a sheet of paper in the fall that said, "We know all of you want to be leaders. This is what a leader looks like." And it wasn't just holding each other accountable, and all of those things that people [commonly associate with leading], but it was about being the encourager on the floor. It was about coming into practice every day with the right mindset. It was about being the one in the locker room who is the encourager saying, "Hey, I know it's a tough day, but this is going to make us better, and here's how." It was about those types of things. Being organized, and being on top of the game plan for what's happening day-to-day, week-to-week. So, when we gave them that sheet, [we were telling them] "You all have the opportunity to step up in every single one of these ways." And maybe you have some strengths in here, and maybe you have areas of weakness that you want to get better at. And we had them go back and grade themselves on that in January. We said, "we went over this in the fall, it's been fun to watch you grow. Now we want you to go back and grade yourselves on where you are right now in these leadership categories." And let's see where we are in the spring at the end, because that process, that growth, is so much fun to watch. So everybody has that opportunity to lead in different ways. Whether it's on an event, some of the ladies might not be the most vocal, but they get on that event and there they come up with this body language and their raise their game on that event and everybody else follows. Right? Some of them are more vocal, more encouraging. So I can't say that any one person is a leader, but together they're unbelievably strong. They all have this unified vision and goal, and it's made all of them go, "Oh, yeah, we want that." And I keep telling them that when you're that, you're unstoppable.

VYD: Ok, I have just one more question, and I'm going to ask this to Hayley Sanders, too: Why do the judges hate Hayley?

DD: (taken a little aback)... Well, I don't think they do...

VYD: Yeah, sorry for asking it that way! But the score discrepancies... she's had like 3 different routines where one judge gave her something like a 9.85 and one a 9.60.

DD: Well, she's a little bit of an unknown. And they [the team] know this, we are fighting a perception battle. When we had that first meet and we're ranked in the 30's or whatever, it doesn't matter... we're fighting a perception battle. And she hasn't competed yet in 3 years. So here's this kid, we haven't seen her, [UGA is] ranked down here (low motion with her hands)... maybe I'm seeing more than is there, I don't know. But if you notice, those [scores] have started to climb.

VYD: I've kind of wondered that, too. Do they just not know her, so they think she's terrible or something?

DD: Yeah, they just don't know what to expect. So if they see... and I told her, when you're on either side of the beam (where judges are located, on the sides), one judge might see you do a switch-side (a skill where a gymnast does a jumping side-split facing towards one side), one might see something because you're facing them that the other judge behind you doesn't see. And you just have to go with that. But for her, we've filled out [a form] we can do for a routine summary, where they [the judges] give you feedback. "We took this [as a deduction], we took this, we took this." So, we would show those to Hayley and she'd be like, "Ok! Fix it." And she fixed it. She would fix it the very next thing. So, it's like taking away the opportunity for those [deductions]. And her "word" has been "undeniable." And what does that look like?

VYD: Oh, that's good.

DD: So now, she's on beam performing in a manner that's undeniable! And I think the more that she does that, and again that's how she's training every day, which is so exciting to see, but the more she does that, the more they know who she is. And as a team, also, we're just getting better, so it's, you know.

VYD: I was also wondering [about bars], 'cause she does her handstands a little differently, instead of doing the straddle-up, she goes straight up.

DD: Which is actually way harder, by the way!

VYD: Oh yeah? Is that one thing the judges kind of get confused on, or don't see?

DD: No, but you really have to lock that [handstand] out, right up on top. And when you straddle-up, if you can just get your feet together... maybe it just looks a little different. So, she has worked really hard to make sure that she locks those out. And actually, we worked on that yesterday. Just that. Really being patient on that first and last cast (the push up to the handstand), because that's the only thing left in her bar routine that they might be taking a little bit. And she also does a standing front [flip] on beam! And I don't think people know, the things she does are harder than... standing front! You're standing and you're doing a flip from no... you're completely generating it from a stand (i.e. No starting momentum). And some judges will look at that and go, "Ooh, she might have landed a little low (with her knees bent too much)," and I'm thinking, "She's STANDING." So, we've talked about that, she's got a strategy to make sure that gets up quick and she finishes it. So that's really paid dividends in the last two meets.

VYD: Great, Alright!

DD: She's one of my favorite stories.

VYD: Oh yeah?

DD: Yeah. Ask her about not wanting to speak to me when she first came on campus 'cause she was too scared of me.

VYD: Oh yeah, I'll ask her about that!

DD: Yeah yeah! Wouldn't make eye contact with me!

VYD: Nice. Thank you for your time!

DD: Absolutely!

My Thoughts:

Wow... so much to unpack there. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to touch on every single point she made... feel free to comment on any and all of it below, though. It was good to get an answer (and a fair answer, I think) about why we only had 5 gymnasts on bars and floor against Mizzou. But the high points, to me, were her comments about recruiting and her comments about judging when I asked about Hayley Sanders.

On recruiting, I might be reading between the lines a little too much (based on my own bias), but what I heard Coach Durante “specifically not say” was that the cupboard was pretty bare when Jay Clark was given his walking papers. She talked a lot about establishing her reputation and her staff’s reputation, but if Georgia’s brand hadn’t been tarnished before she even came on board, that “establishment” process shouldn’t have been as difficult as it sounds like it was.

And honestly, just like in football, part of recruiting is the perception of your program by recruits. Georgia had metaphorically dropped off a cliff after Suzanne Yoculan retired. We had missed the Super Six for 3 straight years, and I can’t help but think that this really hurt us in the recruiting that’s done 3 and 4 years ahead of the time a gymnast graduates high school. For kids that young, they probably couldn’t care less what the Gym Dogs did when they were in elementary school. When you’re at that age, you see a program that has been an empty shell of its former self for years, and I can’t help but think it really hurts your recruiting process at that level. So, I suspect that Danna had to work not only at establishing herself and her staff, but at re-establishing Georgia as a place where the really elite gymnasts would want to come and compete.

As for judging, Coach Durante basically confirmed what I’ve suspected all along (and other folks have said in the comments here). Whether it’s right or wrong, some judges come in with their preconceived notions of who’s “good” and who’s “just ok,” and the ones they already know and think of as “good” tend to get a little bit looser judging criteria. And I figure the same goes for entire teams, as well. So, how do we overcome that? Well, I like that word Hayley chose: “Undeniable.” We have to be undeniable. We have to be just visibly better than the gymnasts the judges “know” are good. And until we do that, we’re going to continue to get shafted sometimes.

And since Coach Durante ended with that story about Hayley (who happened to be standing just barely within earshot as she was saying that), let’s move on to our first gymnast interviewee...

Hayley Sanders

How you look after a bars routine that knocked it out of the park
John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports Communications


(continuing discussion from the end of Durante interview)

Danna Durante: She's one of my favorite stories.

VineyardDawg: Oh yeah?

DD: Yeah. Ask her about not wanting to speak to me when she first came on campus. Wouldn't even make eye contact with me!

(Hayley walks over during this part, laughing)

DD: It wasn't that she hated me, it was just that she was, like, afraid of people.

Hayley Sanders: I used to walk into the gym like this (walking quickly, shoulders hunched down, looking intently at the floor), and Cass (Cassidy McComb, former national champion Gym Dog and volunteer coach) would go, "You can't come in here without saying hi to me!" (Does mock-terror expression.)

(Everybody laughs, and Coach Durante leaves)

VYD: So, Danna said to ask you about it, and I want to hear some more about this story. You didn't even want to look at her when you first came to Georgia?

HS: Nooo! When I first came here as a freshman, I was painfully shy. Didn't want to talk to anyone, and just wanted to stay in my bubble. Just... very very shy.

VYD: But not shy anymore?

HS: I'm a lot better than I used to be. But, you know, still a little bit!

VYD: So, you seem to have "broken out" a little bit this year, at least maybe to a lot of fans. Because maybe they might not have been expecting you to be a regular, consistent performer on bars and beam, but you have been. So, I guess, a pleasant surprise for the fans. Right?

HS: Yeah. (Probably thinking, "WTF kind of question is that?")

VYD: How do you think that has happened for you? What do you attribute that to?

HS: Well, I've been working really hard for the past two and a half years and been coming in, doing my job, and have gained a lot of confidence and consistency in my gymnastics. I've really been pushing the whole time, and finally broke through.

VYD: When I've been writing up some of the recaps for the meets, I'm like, "Oh my god, the judges, like, hate Hayley. Why do they hate her?"

HS: (nervous laugh)

VYD: (chuckle) Yeah, maybe I shouldn't word it that way. But several times, on several routines now, you've gotten a situation where one judge gives you a 9.85 and one gives you like a 9.60.

HS: (deadpan voice) Yeah, seems to be a common theme.

VYD: Do you know why that's happening? Or is there something you can do differently to address that?

HS: I don't really know why it's happening... different judges look for different things, I guess. But all I can do is just come into practice and continue to improve and make any changes to correct any mistakes I made in the meet. Just keep getting better, and hopefully I'll be rewarded for that.

VYD: (Explains leadership question that I ask everyone.) Do you think that's one of the things you're doing that other folks are doing around you, sort of stepping into that leadership void?

HS: Our senior class this year is definitely a great group of leaders. They're always there to push you when you need it or comfort you. They always know what you need and they're able to help you with that. They give great advice because they have a lot of experience, and they've been really helpful to all of us.

VYD: So you're from Texas, obviously. McKinney, Texas' finest!

HS: mmhhmm (probably thinking: Get the heck on with it, dude.)

VYD: The team's going to be going out to Oklahoma, and you were out at LSU, so you're a little bit closer to your family [when you’re competing] there. Are they coming to see you at those meets, or have they been able to get to Athens to see you?

HS: My dad and my grandma both came out to the LSU meet, and my parents and hopefully my little brother are going to come to Oklahoma. So I'm real excited. And they're going to bring my dog!

VYD: Hey! Well, there you go. That's the important part.

HS: Yeah!

VYD: Go Dogs!

HS: (wants to groan and roll her eyes, but laughs politely instead)

VYD: One final question, your major is Biology/Pre-Med, right?

HS: No, I switched from that a long time ago.

VYD: Oh, really? Oops, got that one from the media guide, so blame Brandon (the SID rep for gymnastics, who was standing within earshot).

(Brandon snorts at me.)

HS: Now I'm double-majoring in Dietetics and Consumer Foods.

VYD: Do you plan to become a Dietician after school?

HS: Yes, I want to be a Registered Dietician. So, I have to finish undergrad, then do an internship, then I want to get my masters degree, and then take the exam to get registered. So it's a lengthy process.

VYD: Ah, ok. I was initially asking because I saw that you were pre-med and I knew that Rachel Schick plans to be a dentist after school, so I thought we might have a future doctor and a future dentist on the team! But there goes that story... oh well! Still, best of luck with those plans!

HS: Thank you!

My Thoughts:

When I interview any college athlete, my first thoughts are usually about the impression they’re making with their mannerisms, body language, and voice. Unfortunately, none of those things can be communicated with the written word, so I guess you’ll just have to just trust my judgement on that part. But I’ll say this: Hayley made a good first impression. Confident, clear, and very well-spoken. (I mean, these things have to be judged kind of on a curve, as well, because pretty much any athlete is going to give you a little bit of “athlete-speak” in their answer. But I think Hayley’s was less than most.)

For example, when I got her major wrong, Hayley didn’t kind of “shrink down” and shyly say, “Uh... well, no.” She just straight-up said, “No, I switched from that a long time ago.” Now, asking about one’s major has nothing to do with gymnastics, of course. It’s more about her personal goals and plans. But the answer to that question, I think, reveals a lot about her inner character and confidence.

So, overall, Hayley came across to me as a gymnast who has fought through adversity, trying to climb up that lineup for two full years... and when she finally got there, the judges have kept shortchanging her over and over. But as her answer (and as Danna’s answer about her) shows, she hasn’t let that beat her down, either. She has kept working, fighting through the adversity, and is overcoming it step by step.

So, yeah, I think you could say I’m a Hayley Sanders fan after that interview. (Also, she wants to be a Dietician, which is Mrs. Vineyarddawg’s chosen profession, so that probably makes me naturally biased in her favor.)

Let’s move on to our next Gym Dog interviewee:

Vivi Babalis

/chalk drop
John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports Communications

The Transcript:

VineyardDawg: Thanks for taking some time to chat! The first thing I want to ask is how your elbow's doing? I know you were struggling with that last year. Is it back at 100%?

Vivi Babalis: It's definitely better than last year. I feel like there's probably a little more recovery to do still, but it's a lot better than last year, so I can't complain!

VYD: I've noticed that you've been using [your arms/elbow] more in your routines.

VB: Yeah. On floor and on beam I've tried to upgrade some skills with it.

VYD: Good segue-way... I wanted to ask you about your floor and beam routines this year. You've done a double back dismount on beam a few times this year, but didn't perform it at this past meet.

VB: Yeah, I'm kind of thinking long-term on the season. At the end of the season, I want to put the double back in again. I'm still trying to perfect it, so alternating between that (and the easier dismount) will help me for the sake of consistency.

VYD: How do you think you've been progressing on the beam this year? Better than last year?

VB: Yeah, I think definitely every meet has been getting there. I think I can still do better, so I'm just trying to get there.

VYD: On floor, your routine has been really different this year. A little more "demonstrative" or "expressive." What was the story behind that?

VB: Since freshman year, Danna's been trying to get me to "perform" it more and have less of an "intense" routine. So, this year, I tried hard - with help from lots of people - to have more fun music, "perform" more, and I added some things to me smile and laugh a little bit more.

VYD: The "not LeBron" chalk drop, but the chalk drop at the beginning?

VB: Yeah (laughs)

VYD: Is that kind of inspired by like a "mic drop," or just a "chalk drop," or what?

VB: Just a chalk drop... yeah.

VYD: Ah, ok, I had wondered if it was kind of a little "MIC DROP (mic drop motion) and here comes the great routine" (Vineyarddawg does a dumb little wiggle)... but I guess not.

VB: (mystified, laughing internally at fat guy dancing) Yeah... no.

VYD: (takes a moment to reflect in horror at the fact that he just danced in front of a Gym Dog) So, about your tumbling passes. I think you performed a double arabian in one pass last year, maybe? Are you planning to put that in again this year?

VB: Actually, I haven't competed that yet since I've been here.

VYD: (apologizes for being an idiot who can't keep his s**t straight)

VB: I am training it, and it just needs to be more consistent. I need to perfect it, and [I'm trying to get it ready] for postseason. Hopefully by the end of the year I'll have it.

VYD: Do you think the more expressiveness that you've been using on your new beam and floor routines has helped to build your confidence? Your scores seem to keep bumping up gradually as time goes on... do you think the scores are helping build your confidence, or is it the changes you've made?

VB: Probably both, because when you go out there and you're having fun, it makes everything easier.

VYD: During your Periscope with Coach Durante in the fall semester, y'all talked about one of the unique challenges you had as a freshman, when the coaches were instructing you and giving you notes in English, but your "gymnastics language" was French from your club days (in Quebec). Have the coaching staff been able to adjust, so they're able to communicate more effectively?

VB: Definitely. They've all been helping me out. [For example] Telling me before I go up [to compete] or ahead of time and letting me have time to figure it out. It was definitely kind of different at the beginning since your coaching is not in French... but you get used to it.

VYD: We have several Canadians on the Gym Dogs team now, and before Brittany Rogers, there hadn't been hardly any before. You and Natalie (Vaculik) are the same class, and Jordyn (Pedersen) is younger, but was that an intentional thing for y'all, coming to Georgia at the same time? Any co-recruiting going on?

VB: Not really. But having Brit and Neese (Anysia Unick, who I forgot to mention), I guess they just started recruiting more Canadians.

VYD: Did you know Natalie before coming to UGA?

VB: Yeah, I did. We had competed several times, and Jordyn, too. And we'll probably have more Canadians coming in, too, in the coming years. There always seems be 1 or 2 every couple of years or so, so that's cool.

VYD: So, do Canadians just do gymnastics better, or what?

VB: I mean, I'm not going to say that!

VYD: Your cue there was, "The True North Strong and Free."

VB: (laughs)

VYD: You're a junior this year, and as an upperclassman, do you feel like you're stepping into more of a "leader" role on this team?

VB: As an upperclassman, you do want to have a leadership role, so I'm trying to help the freshmen coming in and helping them out as much as I can. Also, in the gym to try and show a good example in "how we do it" so the transition won't be too tough on them.

VYD: Alright, thank you for your time, Vivi!

My Thoughts:

When I first wanted to interview Vivi in the fall (but was unable to because of my personal schedule), one of the things I was most wanting to know about was her elbow recovery and some of her technical upgrades that were coming on beam and floor. After watching that Periscope session she had with Coach Durante, though (which I highly recommend you click the link above and watch), I just had to ask her about the language barrier thing.

A language barrier is not often something we think about, but Vivi is from Quebec in Canada, where the primary language is French. And not only that, but her family speaks Greek at home, as well. So, English is at best a second language, and more like a third language for her. And not only that, but she explains in the Periscope video that because her coaching for pretty much all her life was in French, she learned the French names for the skills that you perform on all the events. And when the coaches instruct her in English, she has to (1) internally translate that to her native tongue, and (2) translate the gymnastics terms into the terms she learned growing up. And not realizing that at first, the coaches tended to give her the coaching tips/instructions way too fast, or immediately before she started her routines, and it was both confusing and distracting for her.

On top of that, Vivi’s natural tendency in her first two years was to be very “intense” on floor and beam. And on beam, an intense mindset can be fine, but on floor in college, you’re much more frequently rewarded (both by the crowds and judges) for a very expressive, more colorful performance style. And I’m sure being distracted by all that confusion in her freshman year wasn’t helping her with that. Fortunately, though, Danna sat down with Vivi and figured out what was going on, and as you can see above, they’ve both adjusted to Vivi’s style.

Finally, I couldn’t be happier this year that Vivi has adjusted her performance style to more suit the setting of what the collegiate gymnastics world expects. The crowds respond to her better, and I think the judges are responding to her better, too. (Again, as with Hayley Sanders, a lot of it can be about “what the judges expect to see.”) I think those adjustments have been serving her well, and will continue to serve her well.

Finally, let’s look at the last interviewee of the day:

Rachel Dickson

John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports Communications

The Transcript:

VineyardDawg: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me. So, you've had a massive start this year. You've stood out on vault and bars all season, and this last meet you just said, "Ok, yeah, I'll just throw out a 9.95 on floor. I'll just come up with one of the highest all-around scores in the country this weekend." How do you think you did that as a freshman?

Rachel Dickson: From the moment I got here, I felt so welcomed, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Having a team that has your back and immediately being [treated like] a huge team member is a thing that helps boost not only your confidence but your motivation and your energy. We've been practicing really hard, and in the gym I always give 110% and I do all 4 events every day, and I think that really helps, as well. "What you put in is what you're going to get out," is my philosophy. So getting to practice and give 100% every day, and then getting the opportunity to show what I really can do on all 4 events was an incredible feeling, and I'm so happy I got the opportunity to do that.

VYD: I want to ask you a same question I asked you back in the fall, because you have actually experienced this now: How is it different in college when you have a big crowd that's cheering you on, or maybe not cheering you on if you're at LSU, or another big away venue? Does it pump you up, or make you more nervous?

RD: Well, in club, I would think that 20 people was a lot of people watching the meet! And coming into my first college meet at LSU, there was a lot more than 20 people in the stands (Ed. note: approximately 7,582 more), and I think I did feel the nerves a little bit. But once I got into my groove, I calmed down a little bit and my teammates helped me realize that I don't need to be so high-strung and I can relax a little bit more and just have fun. I remember competing for the first time in Stegeman, and how many... I think it was almost 10,000 people! (For the record, announced attendance was 9,872. So, yes.) And you walk out of the tunnel, and you're like, "Oh. My. Goodness." But to me, that's like a boost... a confidence boost or an energy. It gives you such enthusiasm and excitement, because not only are you doing it for yourself, but you're doing it for your school. And you get to show everyone what you can really do. So for me, it boosts me up. It gives me energy and motivation. Hearing the crowd, especially on floor, when you can hear them chanting your name and clapping you on and singing to your music, it really gives you a ton of confidence. So, I really enjoy it.

VYD: In the first two meets, you had a bit of a misstep on beam. Then you didn't compete on beam again until this last meet. Did the coaches make that call, or did you say, "I need to get better before I go out on beam again?"

RD: The coaches make that call, but I did feel a lot of nerves at the first two meets, and you could tell. After I got used to it, you do work your way into the lineup, so you need to earn your spot. So once I had earned my spot back in the lineup, I got to show beam on Friday again, and I was really happy that I finally hit a beam routine. Because I love beam! Beam is my favorite event. I knew I was confident, and I just needed to get out there and show it and let my nerves relax a little, which I think I did. So, I can only grow from there.

VYD: Last time we talked, you said you were a little bit homesick, and that you were looking forward to going home and seeing your family over Christmas break. Did you get a chance to do that? Are you still homesick, and how did you deal with that?

RD: I was pretty homesick, but I did go home for Christmas, and I got to see my family, especially my sister who I miss so much. And then I wasn't homesick! But my mom and dad did come for the first home meet, which was great because I got to show them around Athens a little bit more, and my brother and dad are coming this Friday, too, for the red-out. So, I think although I am a little homesick, I am seeing them a lot more since it's competition season, so I'm not as homesick. (laughs)

VYD: One of the things I've been asking all the Gym Dogs, and want to hear everyone's opinion about, is the leadership on this team. Especially how people are stepping up since last year's senior class were major leaders. Since you've really stepped right in an been a solid contributor from day one, do you feel like you're stepping into a leadership role from a competition standpoint?

RD: This is a hard question!

VYD: It is, I'm sorry. (Ed. Note: Sorry not sorry)

RD: I think that everyone on this team has some type of a leadership role. I think that every girl has something you can look up to or something that you can get guidance from. I think the seniors on this team are great leaders, but I think everyone on the team is a great leader. If I'm ever having a problem or need someone to talk to, I can look to anyone. Not only with competition, but also with confidence, motivation, schoolwork, friends... almost with anything. So... I want to answer that question, "Yes... and No?" Because I still look up to a lot of people and have so many questions being a newbie, but if someone did ever come to me or look up to me, I would adore that and think that's amazing, too.

My Thoughts:

Once again, I was very impressed with Rachel’s poise and presence in an interview. When I interviewed Rachel back in the fall, she actually said before we started, “This is my first interview!” But even then, she held her own very well, in spite of the nerves I’m sure she had.

There’s no denying that Rachel has had a solid season so far. She started a little slow, but she’s been rapidly getting better and better as the season rolls on. One of the things you sometimes see with freshmen, though, is that they can have a little difficulty dealing with the grueling schedule as the season rolls on. The competition lineup of 11 straight weeks without a break can take it’s toll if you’re not prepared, and though I know the coaching staff and the other gymnasts have helped the freshmen know what to expect, you’re probably never truly ready for it until you’ve experienced it.

Still, there are a lot of good things here for Rachel, and lots of signs that there’s more good to come, whether or not she gets to remain in the beam and floor lineup when Sabrina Vega and Sydney Snead return.

Wrap Up:

I have to be honest... I probably enjoy going to media availability and having these discussions with the coaches and gymnasts more than you enjoy reading about it. (And I hope you do enjoy reading about it!) I think Danna Durante has a very positive attitude in her coaching style and in her personal approach towards both life and coaching. Even more importantly, I think progress is being made, even though the early returns on the season haven’t been as sky-high as we’d hoped.

Still, the team picked themselves up impressively after that disastrous week 1, and they showed us the strength of their constitution by putting up a season-high score last Friday on a day with 3 of their best gymnasts were out of the lineup.

I’ll be especially interested to see how Coach Durante assembles the floor lineup when Snead and Vega return, since Dickson performed so impressively in her first chance to shine on floor. (And Morgan Reynolds did well, too.) I suspect that both Snead and Vega will be in the lineup no matter what, but Dickson might be on the verge of taking the spot currently held by Beth Roberts, who has had disappointing early scores, but has also improved steadily throughout the season. And I haven’t even discussed beam, where potentially we have 3 gymnasts possibly coming back, with Vega, Snead, and Nat Vaculik, who has competed on beam in the past for us.

The bottom line, though, is that we’re seeing that this Gym Dogs team does have some quality depth, especially on beam and floor, and that depth means that there’s real competition to make the meet lineups, which can only help the team get better.

It’s too early to make any real judgments about this team’s postseason potential, I think, until we see a few more meets. They started slow, but they’ve been building momentum and confidence. That’s exactly what you want to see from your team, and if the Gym Dogs can keep that momentum rolling, then they’re in a position to make a lot of noise as the postseason approaches. After this week, they start facing the real heavyweights on the schedule, though, and we’ll see how they respond to those challenges. That will be the telling mark on our season.

So, that’s it for now! I’ll be back with a recap of this Friday’s meet vs. Kentucky (Stegeman Coliseum, 7:00 PM, TV on SEC Network), so until then...

Go Dawgs!