Florida gymnast Alex McMurtry performs a floor routine during the NCAA Gymnastics Regional at the Exactech Arena earlier this month. The SEC Gymnast of the Year is an athlete to watch at the NCAAs. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun

Gymnastics: McMurtry's development has UF challenging for title

By Pat Dooley Staff writer
Thursday, April 13, 2017 11:07 AM

ST. LOUIS — This was Alex McMurtry as a freshman gymnast at the University of Florida.

Hurting.

Scared.

Homesick.

The 17-year-old had a head full of doubts when she arrived on campus. She didn’t know what her major would be. Her friends were back home in Midlothian, Va., finishing up their senior year and she was trying to sort out this strange new world.

“I saw my friends go to senior homecoming, senior prom, Halloween,” she said. “Everything with my group of friends was still going on and and I was 12 hours away. It was really difficult.”

This is Alex McMurtry as a junior at UF.

Confident.

Outgoing.

Powerful.

“It all came together,” she said.

The evolution of Alexandra Claire McMurtry has been something that is not uncommon for athletes who simply grow up. At the same time, it has been remarkable.

“I’m not sure where her assertiveness comes from,” said her father David. “Literally, there were all kinds of doubts. It’s pleasing to see she’s made her mark. I couldn’t be any more proud.”

McMurtry’s transformation from the back of the room to the front took some time, but who could blame her? The journey has been layers of change starting when she decided to pass on Olympic aspirations and go to college.

That was one difficult decision she had to make. Then, she had to pick a school. Then she decided to leave high school a year early and throw herself into the world of big-time college gymnastics.

“She made the choice, but it was almost contradictory with why she passed up the Olympic side of things,” David McMurtry said. “She wanted to focus on school and being a regular student. But she also knew she only had so much time left with her back.”

That back, which includes three small fractures in her lumbar spine diagnosed before her sophomore season in high school, meant that she was coming to Florida as damaged goods.

There was also the burn-out factor that hit her during that junior season when she thought it might be over.

Then, the start of her UF career was mostly spent riding a stationary bike.

“The first three months I’m doing cardio on the side cheering for everyone,” she said. “Again I should have been back in high school.”

Then there was this shyness that was almost crippling around such powerful personalities as Bridget Sloan and Kytra Hunter.

“I was really shy my freshman year,” she said. “I was scared to even speak, to talk to seniors, scared to do interviews.

“I didn’t feel like I should even be here my freshman year. Kytra and Sloan just becoming one of them, was my goal.”

That first year, she was limited in what she could do because of the back, which would leave her sore after every workout. Her second-ever event was a 10 on the vault making her the quickest Gator to record a perfect score.

That was a hint of what was to come. She finished the season by recording the clinching score of 9.95 on the bars in the NCAA meet as Florida won its third straight title.

“I don't think I realized I was breaking out of my shell until we won nationals,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is why I’m here.’

“Getting a national title was validating.”

But the drama wasn’t over. Days after that third straight national title, Rhonda Faehn resigned to take a job with USA Gymnastics.

“Another layer,” McMurtry said.

Fast forward to today as the Gators prepare for the 2017 NCAA Championships at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.

Once shy, she is now a leader.

“Just to see her confidence grow, it’s really been amazing,” said fellow junior Kennedy Baker. “For her especially it was just her believing in herself.

“I think she handled it very well. I don't think anyone could have handled it any better.”

The new validation came this spring when she was named SEC Gymnast of the Year AND SEC Scholar-athlete of the year.

“I’ve tried to tell her most people don't get multiple Cinderella stories,” said her father.

The confused freshman is now majoring in applied physiology, taking classes like organic chemistry and sports psychology with an eye toward eventually becoming a physician’s assistant.

The shy freshman has become a role model for the younger gymnasts on the team.

“Every season I just built this confidence up,” she said. “Now I feel like I’m more excited to bring in more freshmen and having little babies following us.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to see this transformation.”

But it happened, like a butterfly emerging from her cocoon.

“She’s definitely taken that role (of a leader) and handled it, inside the gym and outside the gym,” said Florida coach Jenny Rowland. “She really puts her heart and soul into everything she does in life.

“Even when she’s had issues she’s been able to rest and refocus. She’s a great leader. She’s the one the team definitely listens to and looks up to. She’s very approachable and very humble.”

The back issues haven’t gone away but Florida’s trainers and coaches have found a way to manage them.

“It’s always going to be there,” Rowland said. “We just have to pay attention to her as far as numbers and she needs more time to recover.”

And as Florida prepares to go after another title, her family will be in the crowd watching this young girl who has become something very special.

“All we’ve wanted for any of our kids is to do their best,” her father said. “Her best is pretty damn good.”

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.




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