Utah’s stellar work on the balance beam has the Utes on a potentially history-making path

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah fifth-ranked gymnastics team hosts No. 12 University of Kentucky during its home opener, Jan. 3, 2020, at the Huntsman Center.

As one of the most successful gymnastics teams in collegiate gymnastics, Utah has a long history of achievements, awards and records. So it says a lot then, when coach Tom Farden speculates the 2020 beam lineup could be the best the school has ever had.

Talk about putting some high expectations on a team, but it’s hard to argue with Farden after the Utes set a school record against UCLA, totaling a 49.775 on the event, breaking the old mark of 49.65 set in 1995.

If that effort was a one-off, incredible showing, the possibility that this could be the Utes’ best wouldn’t hold as much weight. But the Utes have been extremely consistent on beam, ranking third with a 49.445 average. Only Florida (49.545) and Oklahoma (49.47) rank higher.

Farden had hoped his team would be strong in the event this year since he had recruited several athletes who love competing on the 4-inch wide apparatus. But he wasn’t sure how their gymnastics would translate to the college arena. Suffice it to say, they’ve made the adjustment fine.

“The numbers are there to back it up,” Farden said. “We have three gymnasts who are natural beam workers in Abby Paulson, Maile O’Keefe and Emilie LeBlanc and Cristal [Isa] is outstanding. No one got to see her last year because she was injured.”

Farden credits Alexia Burch and Adrienne Randall for improving as well. He likes the lineup so much, he doubts that he will change it in the future. That is saying something for a coach who is constantly tweaking lineups.

“Those six right now are great beam workers,” he said. “We are seeing 10s every day in practice so it doesn’t surprise me Abby got the 10 at UCLA. We are seeing that day in and day out.”

So how good could the team be and how does it rate in history? If it continues to excel as it has, it would have to be considered one of the special lineups the Utes have had.

The 1995 team, whose record the Utes recently broke, had a great lineup with legendary gymnasts such as Sandy Woolsey, Traci Sommer, Megan Caudle, Aimee Trepanier and Suzanne Metz on the team. Woolsey and Sommer both earned 10.0s on the event in their careers.

The beam work was a key part in Utah’s national title effort that year, the last time the Utes took first. The Utes scored a respectable 49.1 on the event, which tied them with Alabama for third highest out of the six teams in the final.

Other teams that would have to be considered to be the best in Utah history were the 2001 and 2002 squads. Both finished the season ranked No. 1 on the event, with the 2001 version averaging 49.205 and the 2002 team 49.31. They were both led by Theresa Kulikowski, Shannon Bowles and Melissa Vitju, gymnasts who all earned 10.0s in their careers. That 2001 showing in particular was impressive as four of Utah’s beam workers qualified for the NCAA finals with Kulikowski winning the national title, Vituj taking third, Theresa Wolf finishing sixth and Bowles placing seventh. The other two in the lineup, Diedra Graham and Kylee Wagner, earned All-American status.

Unfortunately, beam let down the Utes in the 2001 NCAA finals, with Utah managing just 48.675 in the finals after totaling a 49.425 in the preliminaries. The 2002 showing was better, with the Utes scoring a 49.35 on the beam as part of their fourth-place showing.

So perhaps it is best to wait until the end of the season, when not only the regular meets but also those post-season competitions are in the books, then decide just how good this beam team was.

Isa, for one, said the beam lineup isn’t satisfied and is pushing for more.

“Watching us in the preseason and everything, I got used to watching us hit and didn’t really compare it to the rest of the nation,” Isa said. “It’s amazing how well we are doing, but we haven’t even had our best beam score. There is so much more that we can do.”



When • Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Networks