No matter how hard Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden tore into his kitchen for a remodel, the energy spent on demolition couldn’t keep his mind from wondering what could have been if he was in the gym preparing his team for the Pac-12 Championships instead of standing in the middle of a ripped up home project.
“When we won at Cal, I thought that was the moment we thought we might be onto something this year,” Farden said. “Then we continued to do it. I understand and support the decisions our government made, but I really wanted to see how the very nature of this team was going to unfold.”
He wasn’t the only one. Fans who follow Utah gymnastics probably could see the 2020 team was special. Not only did it navigate a difficult schedule to become only the second team in school history to go undefeated with an 11-0 mark, it did so with a youthful roster that had the moxie to keep battling back in the most challenging situations.
So often in the past the Utes have had strong teams, but they faded under pressure. This group didn’t. They rose up and won. They were so tenacious Farden felt it was a group that could have made a legitimate run at the NCAA title.
Sadly, the shortened season due to the coronavirus restrictions leaves Farden feeling cheated. The Utes finished the season ranked fourth behind Oklahoma, Florida and UCLA.
“It’s almost like mourning a loss,” he said. “You are sad and angry and I just sat there and pouted for a few days. But you have to move on and focus on a new set of goals. We have things we want to accomplish as a team and a program.”
The big goal of course is to win a national title, something the Utes haven’t done since 1995. If it can’t be this year, what about next?
Farden laments that the Utes lose seniors Missy Reinstadtler and Kim Tessen, the two gymnasts who evolved into strong leaders on and off the floor this season. But the Utes return the heart of the team and gymnasts such as Jillian Hoffman, Hunter Dula and Cammy Hall should all have larger roles.
Junior Sydney Soloski has emerged as a team leader and the Utes will get a boost if MyKayla Skinner follows through on her desire to return to the Utes next season for her senior season after skipping this year to compete for a spot on the Olympic Team.
Farden has kept close tabs with Skinner, who trains in Arizona, and feels good about the chances she will return.
Skinner won the NCAA floor title in 2017 and vault title in 2018 and earned a school record 26 All-American awards in her three years.
“She is someone who is an automatic threat for the all-around national championship,” Farden said. “She brings a level of confidence to the team, too, so she would bring back a huge boost.”
The Utes also signed three talented gymnasts in Deanne Soza, Jaylene Gilstrap and Lucy Stanhope. Soza is a former U.S. Junior National team member and Stanhope is a member of the Great Britain national team.
All three are good enough to compete in the all-around for the Utes.
“They are high level athletes with a lot of experience,” Farden said.
Certainly the Utes need skilled gymnasts to be successful, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the Utes is the change in culture that hovered over the 2020 team. After seasons of focusing on themselves and simply trying to do their best, this Utah team put it out there that winning matters.
That is a change in attitude that Farden made in his first year as the solo head coach. He was satisfied with how the team embraced that ideal and plans to push for more next year.
The offseason will be uncharacteristically long, but Farden already is planning. The renovations are underway, at home and work.
“We are here to win a national championship,” he said. “That’s what we are working for.”
SEASON IN REVIEW
Key win: Beating UCLA on the road propelled the Utes to an undefeated season and the regular season Pac-12 title.
Key development: The Utes showed a new hunger for winning and had a strong leader emerge in Sydney Soloski, who will return for her senior year.
Looking ahead: The Utes welcome three talented gymnasts for the 2021 season and other gymnasts who made a big impact such as Maile O’Keefe will benefit from the experience of 2020.
Key question: If MyKayla Skinner returns, the Utes will at least on paper look like a favorite for the national title.