Marissa Oakley found herself in an unavoidable moment as she walked into the arena Friday night. She prepared for a bar routine that she was accustomed to, but a sense of doubt had set in.
Welcome to the stresses of gymnastics. Oakley had been confident in practice, but Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter noticed a slight change in demeanor and had to prevent it from settling in.
“She was feeling the pressure to make up for what she’s done in the past,” Kupets Carter said. “I had to let her know to stay in the moment. She is really a beautiful gymnast when she can relax into it.”
Oakley elevated onto the bar and was greeted by plenty of cheers. It suddenly felt like practice again as the repetition paid off and her routine was executed with little flaw. Her only moment of doubt was a slight lean on the dismount, but it didn’t matter for much as a 9.925 score tied a career-high.
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As she landed, Georgia engaged in the celebration that all gymnasts do — whether the performance was good or bad. This one was special as the elation was true and every GymDog knew the importance of a good performance from Oakley in the anchor position. Oakley followed her bar routine with a 9.85 on beam as Georgia (5-3) beat Kentucky 197.300-197.225.
“I’ve been working really hard to get back on that stride,” Oakley said. “I had to believe in myself and trust that I’ve done it so many times before. I know I can do it, but it was about going on autopilot and doing my normal.”
Oakley found herself in a two-week rut, and that’s unusual for a GymDog who has been largely consistent since stepping on campus nearly two years ago. After posting a 9.925 on bars against Iowa State, Oakley was sidelined for rest in the following meet against Auburn. After two meets in the span of a weekend, it made sense to grant the sophomore a chance to breathe after a quick turnaround. But little did Georgia know that it would lead to a temporary downturn.
Her next two meets against Arkansas and Missouri were comprised of an 8.975 and 9.275 on bars. Oakley’s detrimental error was on her first skill, the toe-half, but the issue wasn’t for a lack of execution.
“I had been hitting it in practice and building it up in consistency,” Oakley said. “It was more of a mental thing than anything technical.”
Her teammates concurred with Oakley’s use of the term, saying “normal Marissa” was back.
“It’s something that we had no doubt about. Everybody has off days,” Georgia junior Sabrina Vega said, who scored a 9.975 on floor. “You could see it in her face, and she needed that. It definitely put her back on track and gave her that confidence to keep going.”
Oakley’s score on bars was the finale in a series of strong performances for the GymDogs. She was preceded by a 9.925 from Sydney Snead and a career-high 9.95 from freshman Alexa Al-Hameed as her Tkatchev-based routine was displayed to near perfection. That finish led Georgia to a 49.475 on bars, and that’s the highest score on any event this season.
A factor in that improvement may have stemmed from the lineup change. Kupets Carter has tinkered with it each week in an attempt for Georgia to improve in its weakest event (18th nationally with an average of 48.961 entering Friday’s meet), but this was a wholesale shift. Each of the positions were altered and Oakley replaced Emily Schild to return to her normal spot as anchor.
Those lineups were drafted by Kupets Carter and options were given to assistant coach Josh Overton (who specializes on bars), and he put the finishing touches on it. Georgia’s biggest change came in moving Schild from her anchor spot toward the beginning of the lineup to follow Megan Roberts.
“It was definitely the right lineup, because the goal is to have the momentum build,” Kupets Carter said. “We are excited to finally get in a groove.”
Oakley’s spot in the anchor position was questioned, Kupets Carter said, as the GymDogs worked to find the smoothest formula. At the same time, there was plenty of belief in Oakley’s routine and ability to execute it, and it was a task she became used to (despite the responsibilities that come with it). She finished last season with six consecutive scores of 9.8-or-higher and opened her sophomore campaign with four straight before the dip in performance.
Her biggest supporter was Vega, who enjoys the opportunity to build relationships with her teammates. Earlier in the week, she was in disbelief that freshman Rachael Lukacs spoke so highly of her bond. In this case, Vega was able to lend a helping hand and build upon an already-built foundation.
“Me and Marissa are like sisters in the gym,” Vega said. “I’ll be like ‘hey, you’re good. Don’t worry about it.’ We have a lot of inside jokes that get us through practice, because our old bodies are feeling it. I had full confidence in her.”
There was no semblance of doubt from her teammates, but Oakley saw the results once she overcame it. Everyone now knows what the best-possible version of Oakley is capable of.
“It’s amazing, actually,” Kupets Carter said. “She has so much potential inside of her, and to see little mistakes here-and-there and a performance that hasn’t shown her capability, that’s not what you want. It was very clutch for her.”