As a fifth-year senior, Kari Lee has been dubbed the ‘grandma,’ on Utah’s gymnastics team. But she is working on earning another nickname too — entrepreneur.
Lee, who redshirted her sophomore year after tearing her achilles tendon, is majoring in business administration, with the goal of joining her parents in the family business of owning gymnastics facilities. The family has two sites for Flames Gymnastics Academy in Arizona with three of Lee’s siblings also involved.
“It would be a dream come true working with my family,” Lee said. “I want to start coaching with the basics and learning all the things I haven’t done in 10 years like spotting.”
Lee might think of herself as a coach in the future, but in reality she already has slipped into that role for the fifth-ranked Utes, who open the season Saturday against Penn State at 4 p.m.
“She has been through it all so she is helpful not only in competing, but being there for others on the team who have an injury or are struggling with mental toughness,” Utah coach Megan Marsden said. “She has been there and done that.”
Being a sort of coach on the floor is one thing, but it isn’t that Lee has embraced that role because she is no longer competitive and was just looking for a way to help the team. If anything, she is better than ever, a feat that is rare for gymnasts going into their fifth years due to the hard nature of the sport that favors youth over longevity.
KARI LEE FILE
Vitals: 5-foot-2, Senior.
Hometown: Peoria, Ariz.
Of note: Three-time All-American and All-Pac-12 Conference..Co-captain…Went all-around in 10 meets as a junior…Hit 49-of-51 routines in 2018 and earned a career all-around high of 39.525 against Georgia…Had four victories…Athletic Director’s Honor Roll.
Along with MyKayla Skinner, MaKenna Merrell-Giles and Missy Reinstadtler, Lee forms the heart of the team that is expected to contribute in the all-around in many events.
“She is as fit and as knowledgeable about the game of college gymnastics as she has ever been,” Marsden said. “She is one of those who can make a big difference for us and contribute a 9.9 average on three or four events week in and week out.”
Getting back to the all-around level was a goal of Lee’s in 2018 as she continued to find the form she had before tearing her Achilles and suffering a high ankle sprain at the end of the 2017 season.
She was successful in doing so, competing in the all-around 10 times. However, the NCAA Championships didn’t go the way she had envisioned as the Utes finished just fifth.
Lee had a 9.8 or higher on every event, but the Utes had too many mistakes elsewhere.
Finishing her career with a good showing is important to he, but rather than focus on the end, the Utes need to focus on getting better with every meet, she said. That quest starts against the Nittany Lions.
“We have goals for ourselves,” she said. “But we have to bring the freshmen along and see how we start before we start stressing about the end.”
Since she made entered the preseason healthier than she has in several years, Lee was able to focus more on improving than recovering.
She has excelled on the balance beam and floor with her clean lines and showmanship but has been working to improve her bars and vault.
On the latter she has gotten more height and distance under the guidance of assistant coach Robert Ladanyi.
“I was hard on myself and he was hard on me too,” Lee said. “The only difference between my vault and others was that extra ’wow’ factor so we worked hard.”
Lee said the season opener had caught her by surprise, not realizing it was meet week until she saw several members of the media at practice this week.
But don’t worry, according to Marsden, the super grandma senior is more than ready.
“I’m really proud of her for the way she has practiced,” Marsden said. “At one point a while back she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to take on another year and I’m glad she did because I feel like her best days are ahead of her.”
NO. 5 UTAH VS. PENN STATE
At the Huntsman Center
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700
Records: Season opener
Series: Utah leads 27-6
Last regular season meeting: March 12, 2010, Utah won 196.975-195.7
Of note: Utah has won the lsat 26 meetings with Penn State, dating back to a 1981 loss in University Park, Pa….Penn State is coached by Sarah (Shire) Brown, who competed for Utah’s 2007 NCAA runner-up team as a freshman. She finished her career at Missouri and is in her second year coaching the Nittany Lions…The meet is themed the SLC edition and car decals with the Salt Lake City skyline will be handed out while the team will wear SLC-themed leotards…The Utes will have an autograph session following the meet.