News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Freshman gymnast leads Tide into nationals

TUSCALOOSA (AP) — Ricki Lebegern had to be convinced to accept a gymnastics scholarship at Alabama, but her reluctance wasn't the product of normal recruiting indecision.

Lebegern wasn't sure she was good enough to compete for the Crimson Tide.

"This is a young lady I had to talk into coming to The University of Alabama," Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said, "because she didn't think she was good enough to compete at this level, on this high level of a team that expects to compete for the national championship every year."

Lebegern has proved herself wrong.

The Tide freshman from Annandale, Va., is set to compete in all four events at the NCAA championships beginning Thursday in Salt Lake City.

She had competed as a Level 10 gymnast, not the highest Elite level, before arriving at Alabama.

"Everybody thought since I was a Level 10, it was more the Elites that were going to the better schools," Lebegern said. "I was just a 10.

"Toward the end of my junior year, I thought maybe I could be on a team like Alabama's. I talked to Sarah and she told me I could do it. I came here and I fit in."

More than fit in, actually. Lebegern won the balance beam title at the Southeastern Conference championships last month.

"I keep reminding her and pinching her a little bit on the side and saying 'You remember that conversation we had in your living room? You remember me telling you that you could be a great athlete?"' Patterson said.

Lebegern did have impressive credentials even if she was "just" a Level 10 gymnast. She was a member of the U.S. Junior Olympic national team, finishing fourth in the all-around as a high school junior and second as a senior.

Other top gymnastics programs were also recruiting her, including Utah, LSU and Michigan.

When she watched Alabama win the 2002 NCAA championships, Lebegern recalled thinking, "I wish I could be on a team like that.

"That's when I set my goals to be at a school like Alabama," she said. "I pushed myself in the gym and in school hoping I could get here. Looking back, it's paid off because it's the one thing I've wanted."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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