It had been five years since Alyssa Baumann had competed on the uneven bars. As the clock ticked down on her gymnastics career, and with just a few meets left in the regular season, the Florida senior wasn't sure she would ever have the chance to make her return.
Still, she trained intensely just in case the team needed her for that event.
Then on the morning of Feb. 19, she was told the news: Due to COVID-19 protocols, the No. 1-ranked Gators would be down several team members for the night's meet against Kentucky and she would need to compete on every event -- including bars.
She was excited, but also more than a little nervous. She was relieved she hadn't found out the night before, because there was no way she could have slept.
She had last competed on the event as an elite gymnast at the 2016 national championships, fighting for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Then, just days before the Olympic trials, she fell off bars in practice, tearing several ligaments and muscles in her left elbow. The injury required immediate surgery -- dashing her Rio dreams and ending her elite career.
Just hours before the meet against the Wildcats, Alyssa knew there was one person who could help calm her nerves: her younger sister Rachel, a junior on the gymnastics team at Georgia.
Rachel responded to Alyssa's text without hesitation: "You got this."
That support comes from a fierce conference rival, of course.
The Baumann sisters have spent the past three seasons battling in the gym, but remain each other's biggest fan. As Alyssa's career comes to a close, they will face off for what might be the final time on Friday at NCAA regionals in Athens, Georgia (1 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET; ESPN3). It's the culmination of years of challenging and motivating each other.
Growing up in Plano, Texas, both sisters trained at the famed World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA), which produced Olympic all-around gold medalists Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin. Alyssa started in the sport first as a 3-year-old, and Rachel followed suit two years later at the same age.
They were competitive right from the start: If Rachel learned a new skill, it pushed the more-advanced Alyssa to make sure she could do it too.
"I would watch her and I would be like, 'If she can do that then I definitely should be able to do that,'" Alyssa said.
By her first year competing on the senior elite level as a 16-year-old, there was little Alyssa couldn't do. She finished in second place on beam and fourth in the all-around and on floor at the 2014 national championships, securing her place on the team for the world championships. Alongside names such as Simone Biles, Kyla Ross and her WOGA-teammate Madison Kocian, Baumann and the U.S. squad took home the gold medal in the team competition.
As one of the country's best beam workers, Baumann was very much a contender to make the 2016 Olympic team until the fall just days before trials ended those hopes.
"I never thought this would happen," she wrote on Instagram after the accident. "This is obviously not how I wanted things to end, and I'm still in shock and completely devastated."
After another surgery on her wrist later in the summer, Alyssa deferred her enrollment at Florida for a year to focus on her recovery and rehab efforts. She returned to WOGA, where she trained side-by-side with Rachel, who had just won the 2016 Junior Olympic national all-around title. (The level below elite in women's gymnastics.)
Both sisters found continuous motivation from one another, and Alyssa spent the year making her best Florida recruiting pitches to Rachel in hopes of convincing her to join her in Gainesville.
"We had been in the same gym growing up our whole lives, and in many ways it felt natural for us to be together in college, but at the same time, I wanted to make a name for myself and go my own way," Rachel said. "I needed to figure out who I can be by myself. I fell in love with [Georgia] as soon I stepped on campus and I knew right away it was for me. It was definitely the right decision."
Rachel was so excited about joining the GymDogs that she graduated from high school a year early and headed to Athens as a 17-year-old. While initially Rachel's freshman year would have been Alyssa's senior campaign, she now was just one year behind her -- an opportunity both relished. They have loved not only regularly competing against one another but also having each other to lean on.
When Alyssa came forward in 2018 as a survivor of sexual abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar with a statement shared on her social media accounts, Rachel then posted it on her Instagram page with the caption, "I'm so incredibly proud of you!! You are the strongest person I know!"
Alyssa was initially in denial about what she had experienced and hesitant to tell her family for fear of being a burden. She ultimately made her public announcement nearly 11 months after Nassar had been sentenced, and said she refused to allow it to define or limit her.
"Rachel is the only one that really understands everything I went through to get to this point, and so I'm definitely very thankful that I'm able to have her in college with me at the same time and in the same conference," Alyssa said. "I always watch her routines and I check in with her every other day and see how she's doing."
Both sisters have undoubtedly made their mark on college gymnastics. Alyssa became the first gymnast in SEC history to win three conference titles on beam when she scored a 9.95 on the event earlier this month. She helped lead the Gators to a third-place finish at the 2018 NCAA championships, and took third on floor individually at the same meet. She is a seven-time All-American and was recently announced as a finalist for the prestigious AAI award for the NCAA's top senior gymnast. She heads into regionals ranked No. 10 on floor and No. 13 nationally on beam.
Shortly after beginning her collegiate career, Rachel was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week in February of 2019 -- the same week Alyssa was given the conference's Specialist of the Week honors. Rachel has twice competed in the all-around for the No. 18-ranked Georgia this season, and earned a career high on floor (9.95) and matched her previous best on beam (9.95). She is currently ranked No. 33 in the country on floor. Georgia was unable to compete in the SEC championships due to multiple positive tests in the program for COVID-19, but Rachel and her teammates are expected to compete this weekend.
Back in February, when Alyssa finally broke into the bar lineup, she tried to remember her sister's words and not the 1,699 days since her last competitive routine. She tried to ward off the negative thoughts, but reminded herself her score could be dropped if it was the team's worst.
She took a deep breath, adjusted her grips and bounded off the springboard for the high bar.
What happened felt like a dream: Alyssa was nearly flawless, ending the routine with a stuck double layout dismount. Her teammates ran out to celebrate with her, and tears streamed down her face.
"I had been waiting for that moment for so long," she said. "Once I landed, I didn't really even care what the score was. It didn't matter. I was just overwhelmed with emotion from what a long journey it had been to get back to bars."
The lingering pain from her injury had kept her away from consistently training on the event until this season.
- SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 20, 2021
She earned a 9.925 -- good enough for a share of the day's title on that event -- and won on floor as well as in the all-around. Her 39.650 score marked the highest finish in school history for a gymnast making their all-around debut.
Rachel was unable to watch live as Georgia was simultaneously competing at Auburn, but she made sure to watch the highlight as soon as she could. She found herself beaming with pride from 300 miles away.
"She's been through so much and it was just amazing to see, for everyone to see, how strong she really is," Rachel said. "I was trying to help calm her down earlier and make her believe she could do it because I've seen the incredible things she can do. I knew she had it, but it was so beautiful to watch."
Both sisters will need to have highlight-worthy outings on Friday to lift their teams into the next round. Nine teams were selected to the Athens region, with NC State and Western Michigan competing in a play-in meet on Thursday. On Friday, two separate sessions of four teams each will compete, with the top two teams from each of those meets advancing to Saturday's regional championships. The top two squads on Saturday will advance to the NCAA championships in April in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Gators have held the top spot in the national rankings for the duration of the season, and are among the favorites to win the national title. The GymDogs will face higher-ranked Denver and Minnesota teams during their session on Friday and would very much like to play spoiler after their disappointing absence at the SEC championships.
Florida will be competing in the night session on Friday, and Georgia will be competing in the afternoon -- with a chance to square off head-to-head on Saturday. While the Baumann sisters may not be on the floor at the same time, this means they may have the chance to watch each other.
"We've always pushed one another to get better and we are competitive with one another, but it's always been a lot of support too," Alyssa said. "Rachel has done an amazing job this season, and I hope that she does well. I hope her team does well.
"But I hope we do a little bit better."