By (Ben Stansell)

Nicknames are ingrained in sports culture. Some are earned by athletes through their legendary play, such as Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky; others allude to an athlete’s trademark appearance, like Shaquille “Diesel” O’Neal.

It did not take long for freshman Lexi Graber to become known by her coaches and teammates as the “firecracker.” After watching one of her energetic performances, it takes even less time to figure out why.

While warming up for a home meet against Missouri on Jan. 26, sophomore Shea Mahoney rolled her ankle. Suddenly, Alabama was without a gymnast who was scheduled to compete in three different events that night. One of those events was uneven bars.

Originally slotted to perform an exhibition routine on uneven bars, Lexi Graber was thrust into the competitive lineup in Mahoney’s place. She had never before performed a bars routine in live competition. Determined not to let that dull her flame, Graber delivered a dazzling, passionate performance that earned her a 9.9.

“I mean, for her to have been ready mentally to do an exhibition routine and I come to her and be like, ‘hey, I need you to go on bars,’ and for her to step in and do 9.9 her first bar routine says a ton,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said.

With that superb uneven bars performance under her belt, Alabama’s “firecracker” had competed at least once in three events within her first three career meets. Graber has also notched a 9.8 on vault and a 9.9 on balance beam, both of which are events she competes in regularly.

“She’s a gamer,” Duckworth said. “She loves to compete.”

Although being able to compete in three events as a freshman is a profound accomplishment, Graber is not done adding to her bag of tricks quite yet – a floor exercise routine is currently in the works, according to Duckworth. The addition of a floor routine would give Graber the potential to be an all-around gymnast for Alabama.

“I have high expectations for her to be an all-arounder,” Duckworth said. “And you know, we’re very proud of where she’s at right now.”

Duckworth is not sure exactly when Graber’s floor routine will be polished and ready for live competition, but she plans on having Graber warmup on floor against Florida on Friday if everything goes smoothly in practice this week.

Graber’s teammates are also impressed with the quick impact she has made. Especially senior Nickie Guerrero, who, like Graber, is well-known for her spirited disposition and the vivacity she exudes. Their similar demeanor is one reason Guerrero feels a special kinship with Graber, even though Graber has yet to trademark a celebration quite as bold as Guerrero’s first pump.

“She reminds me of me a little bit,” Guerrero said. “But she’s so mature for her age, which is something that I was not, which is really cool to see as a freshman, doing so well so young… I feel like a proud mom whenever she competes.”

Graber has made her transition to college gymnastics appear seamless, but it has not been without obstacles. The first of those was arriving at Alabama and seeing firsthand how talented her new teammates are. Rather than let it dishearten her, Graber used it as fuel to improve her craft.

“I mean, you know, it’s really hard coming in as a freshman and, you know, just seeing how great everybody is and, you know, it’s a little intimidating when you’re first coming in,” Graber said. “But it just pushes you to do better.”

A more serious roadblock that Graber faced was a pre-season surgery to remove a bone spur in her foot. The procedure did set Graber back, but she recovered in time to prepare for this season.

“I did have my surgery, which set me back for a couple months,” Graber said. “But yeah, I mean, they put you in such a good position and they prepare you so well for season.”

Having had a blazing start to her young career, Graber will have many eyes on her as her role expands. She will probably be too focused on what she can do to help her team succeed to notice them.

“I just want to contribute what I can to this team, towards SECs and Nationals and just, whatever I can do to help us, you know, be the best team we can,” Graber said.

No. 9 Alabama (3-2, 3-1 SEC) travels to Gainesville on Friday to take on No. 5. Florida (4-1, 2-1 SEC) at 6 p.m.

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Source:: The Crimson White Sports