One-time rivals now best of friends
When Utes gymnast Ashley Postell has a brief thought that maybe today she can forego the extra running she had planned, she'll call teammate Nicolle Ford because she knows Ford won't let her back out of it and will suffer with her.
When she messes up in practice or a meet, Ford doesn't cringe when she sees Postell walking over to her, she knows Postell will bring a joke rather than some babying words to make her feel better.
Postell and Ford, arguably Utah's most competitive gymnasts, have formed a bond this year out of a desire to win. As successful athletes, a natural spark exists to one-up each other. In doing so, Utah's team has been elevated to new levels, as Postell and Ford have pushed themselves and everyone around them.
"They definitely feed off each other," Utah senior Kristen Riffanacht said.
The Utes, ranked No. 2 in the country, compete Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a spot in the NCAA Championships, April 20-22 at Corvallis, Ore.
"I've learned so much from them, how to keep pushing even when you get tired or frustrated," freshman Kristina Baskett said. "I want to be right up there with them. In club, I was the only elite so I had no one to push me. Here, I've got 11 others to push me."
Like two quarterbacks vying for a starting role, Postell and Ford have made each other better.
Postell finished the regular season ranked No. 7 in the all-around with a regional qualifying score of 39.435 while Ford was a spot behind her with an RQS of 39.42.
"It's good to have someone who can challenge you to get to a higher level," Postell said. "It's not just her, everyone in the gym motivates me, and that's a benefit for all of us."
Asked about the two stars, Utah coach Greg Marsden gave a knowing smile.
"You know there's a little selfishness when one's lying in bed going, 'Gosh dang it, I got beat,'" he said. "The difference here is both quarterbacks can play."
Marsden sees history repeating itself as their roles evolve. Their style reminds him of Missy Marlowe and Shelly Schaerrer, two All-Americans who led Utah to national titles in 1990 and 1992 and a second-place finish in 1991.
"They were friends, but at the deepest root of their friendship, there was a competitiveness there, too," he said. "They pushed each other and fed off each other, but kept it motivating."
Ford and Postell were friends last year, but their roles as team leaders weren't quite as defined since Postell was a rookie who was just learning what collegiate gymnastics was all about.
Now Postell knows what is expected, and Ford has the experience plus the title of being a team captain this season.
"We've gotten closer this year because we have a lot in common," Ford said. "We've learned we need each other."
The two have very similar personalities in that neither likes to be coddled, especially after they make a mistake.
"I don't want to be disrespectful of others, but if I mess up, I know what I did and if I'm ticked off, I need a minute or so to cool down," Postell said. "She's the same way; if I see it's not a good time, I'll wait."
Almost always, one is the first to approach the other.
"The others are too scared to talk to us," Ford said. "I don't want someone to come up and say, 'Oh, it's OK, it doesn't matter.' That doesn't work for us."
The two have taken their push-and-push relationship out of the gym, too, often running together and taking a history class together so they can study with one another.
"Sometimes you don't want to work out or study, and it's helpful if I have someone who can give me a kick in the butt if I need it," Postell said.
Both are two of the best gymnasts in the country on all four events, but their biggest contributions, at least in the team concept, have been on the balance beam where Ford is fifth in the lineup and Postell follows as the anchor.
On many occasions, the duo has delivered big scores after teammates have fallen. Postell is No. 2 in the nation on the beam with a 9.92 RQS and Ford is eighth with a 9.9.
"Beam has been a pressure situation for both of us," said Ford, who acknowledged both athletes sometimes slip away from sight while others compete. ". . . Sometimes we give each other a pep talk to calm ourselves down."
l Ashley Postell, sophomore All-American, ranked No. 2 on balance beam, No. 7 in all-around and leads team with 19 wins
l Nicolle Ford, at right, junior All-American, ranked No. 5 on the uneven bars, No. 8 in all-around and has 14 wins
SATURDAY, Ann Arbor, Mich., 4 p.m. MDT
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