Utah’s gymnasts are preparing for the ‘21 season. The only catch is, they still don’t know when it will start.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sydney Soloski says she and her teammates are still trying to get used to the new normal as the COVIDF-19 pandemic drags on , but now that everybody is back in the gym together, it feels more normal than it has in awhile.
In normal times, Utah’s gymnastics team would be holed up in their practice facility, gearing up for their Red Rocks preview, the mid-December event in which thousands pack the Huntsman Center to see the team run through its routines just weeks before the season begins.
The Utes are indeed in their practice gym working routines, but there is no public Red Rocks preview planned and any isolation that goes on is more about being safe than simply focused. While there are plans for a season, nothing is guaranteed, only tentative hope and a nod from the Pac-12 to move forward in preparations.
The league is expected to release a schedule soon, but details on what kind of set ups with fans, etc., have yet to be hashed out.
It’s unfamiliar territory of a kind coach Tom Farden never imagined he would be experiencing.
“Last year this time we had a brand new staff, no MyKayla Skinner, four freshmen and we were replacing 14 routines,” he said. “This year we are replacing only seven routines but this is a situation all its own.”
A little more than eight months ago the Utes were in the midst of a magical run, having become just the second team in history to finish the regular season undefeated, going 11-0 and earning a No. 4 national ranking despite an extremely young team.
The Utes, who had just two seniors in Kim Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler, were ranked just behind Oklahoma, Florida and UCLA. They thought they had not only the talent but the mental capacity to contend for a Pac-12, then national title.
(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden says it was tough to have to end the season last March because his young team was exceeding so many expectations and appeared on track to compete for Pac-12 and national titles. But that also bodes well for 2021.
But instead of going to the biggest stage in collegiate gymnastics, the Utes went home, with workouts in their hands in hopes that cardio efforts and the most basic of exercises would help them navigate the intricacies of a possible future season.
“When the season ended, it was a moment of ‘What do we do now,’” senior Sydney Soloski said. “We had more time off than anyone has had since since we were young. It was a really weird time.”
With most gyms closed and no access to equipment, the Utes focused on cardio and basic exercises.
“It was the basic fundamental stuff you do when you are six,” Soloski said. “Not even any flipping.”
Thankfully, the Utes have been back in their practice gym since the conference gave gymnastics teams permission to resume training in September.
The Utes might not be where they normally are at this point of the year, but they know they aren’t alone.
“We are all going through this,” Farden said of the collegiate gymnastics world. “They were gone for almost five months. I like to say if an athlete is out with a cold or injury for three days it will take about six days to get back, about a 2-to-1 ratio. I’m not sure what the formula is for this.”
Despite all the training challenges, Farden is happy with the quality of workouts he sees in the team.
Seniors Alexia Burch and Soloski and juniors Cristal Isa and Adrienne Randall lead the team with their experience but big things are also expected out of sophomores Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe. Sophomore Jillian Hoffman has been slowed by a shoulder injury but is a solid competitor on floor when healthy.
Senior Emilie LeBlanc, junior Cammy Hall and sophomore Jaedyn Rucker are also expected to compete for spots.
Freshmen Jaylene Gilstrap, Alani Sabado and Lucy Stanhope should all be regulars in the lineup, although Sabado is still dealing with a foot injury.
Missing from the 2021 team is Hunter Dula, a bars specialist who decided to retire for medical reasons.
At the abrupt end of the 2020 season, Farden spoke about the promise he thought the Utes would have in 2021. He is still hopeful and positive now.
“We are finally getting into a normal rhythm of what an offseason looks like, " Farden said. “We are a little behind where they usually are, but they are getting to the point where they are strong enough and they are positive.”
The Utes have had some gymnasts miss practices due to quarantine protocols, but so far none have tested positive for COVID. It helps that the team has been able to sequester itself in its own practice facility where the Utes also can study, eat and undergo physical therapy.
“We would be ignorant to think we will get through this without any problems but we have been so incredibly smart and thoughtful through this,” Soloski said. “We’ve yet to have a COVID case or a high risk contact. As captain, that makes me feel better. We are committed to this program and committed to the greater good of the whole community.”
They are committed to the season, even if the season isn’t quite yet committed.