From humble beginnings, Utes have set the standard in college gymnastics
As a hungry graduate assistant working in the University of Utah's physical education department, Greg Marsden thought $1,500 to coach a club women's gymnastics team sure sounded like a good deal.
It was, for the University of Utah.
Now, 30 years later, Marsden has built the most successful collegiate gymnastics program in the country.
Since the team was implemented as a result of Title IX legislation, the Utes have won 10 national titles and have led the nation in attendance 20 of the past 23 years.
Friday, before the meet against Arizona State, Utah will celebrate its 30-year anniversary. Of the 91 gymnasts who have competed for the Utes, 52 are returning for the celebration.
"You do feel like a pretty special person to be involved in the program," said Lisa Mitzel, a gymnast from 1983 to 1986, who now lives in Menlo Park, Calif. "Spiritually, it was one of those gifts that you find out meant so much more later in life."
For Marsden, initially, it was an avenue into a field he hadn't given much thought. As a grad assistant, he taught a gymnastics class; as a gymnastics instructor, he met the few qualifications the university required. "They were just following the letter of the law," he said.
He was given a $4,500 budget, part of which he used to put an ad in the school paper asking for gymnasts to try out.
"I didn't even know how to qualify for nationals," Marsden said. "I remember getting a call from someone saying they wanted us to compete at nationals."
At the time, 16 teams competed for the national championship. That first year, with Marsden's pieced-together team, Utah finished 10th.
That is the lowest the Utes ever finished. The next year, Utah was ninth, then sixth, fourth, second and, finally, first in 1981.
"Looking back, gymnasts on those teams will say they didn't accomplish much," Marsden said. "But what they did was just as significant."
They were the foundation for a program that went skyward, winning the national title from 1981 to '86, then in '90, '92, '94 and '95. Utah gymnasts have earned 244 All-American awards, more than any other program.
"We were so good, it almost doesn't seem real," said Missy Marlowe, who competed from 1989 to '92. "At some point, you get a sense that it's so good, it can't last, but it did. It lasted and lasted and lasted."
Memorable moments include Utah's string of championships, Marlowe's dominating performance at the NCAA Championships in 1992, and Utah's unexpected wins, such as in 1995 when three teams ahead of Utah all had falls. Then there were times such as 2000, when everyone including the coaches had injuries.
"We had so much adversity that year, to finish second was unbelievable," said Diedra Graham, who competed from 1999-2002. "We didn't take first, but it felt like we did."
Marsden loves the memories, but is eager to make more, too. Utah hasn't won a national title since 1995, a drought the 2005 team seems capable of ending.
"We're proud of what we've accomplished," Marsden said. "But that is in the past, and I'm still looking forward. I'm much more worried about this meet, and recruiting for next season."
BLAST FROM PAST
A number of former Utah gymnasts will be recognized before Utah's regular-season finale against Arizona State on Friday at the Huntsman Center. They will be introduced at 6:45 p.m., with the meet beginning at 7:05.