Most of Utah’s gymnasts will tell you they came to Utah in part because of the program’s rich winning tradition. They knew about the national titles, winning streaks and sold-out crowds. They wanted to be a part of that history. However, they didn’t want to rest on that history.
This group of Utes, many of whom competed last year, has a certain determination and hunger to win. Some past teams have been satisfied doing their best; this group keeps challenging itself as to what that best is.
Since last year, the Utes have gone undefeated in the regular season except for a loss to defending champion Oklahoma this year. They won the Pac-12 conference meet and followed it with a regional title in arguably the toughest region. Based on how they have performed this season, this group probably would have swept the conference and regional titles last year, too, if they hadn’t been canceled.
“There has been a little bit of a culture shift,” senior Sydney Soloski said. “We are a proud and storied program with a legacy, but we have leaned on that legacy in past years. In the past two years, we want to put our money where the mouth is and we haven’t won a national championship since 1995. We want to be the team that wins the 11th [national championship].”
That is a bold statement, but Soloski’s attitude is refreshing. In a time when it’s considered best to not give other teams locker room material or be too boastful lest confidence be mistaken for foolish cockiness, Soloski views the hunger to win as necessary.
NCAA GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS
At Fort Worth, Texas
When • Friday, April 16
TV • ESPN2
(All times MDT, rankings and national qualifying scores noted with teams)
Session 1, 11 a.m.: No. 2 Michigan (395.9), No. 3 Florida (395.644), No. 6 California (395.363), No. 8 Minnesota (394.856)
Session 2, 4 p.m.: No. 1 Oklahoma (396.119), No. 4 LSU (395.563), No. 5 Utah (395.481), No. 7 Alabama (395.1113)
Top two teams from each session advance to Saturday’s finals at 1:30 p.m., which will be televised by ABC
Utah coach Tom Farden loves that attitude. He and his staff can coach the technicalities and encourage a winning attitude, but they can only take the team so far.
“The athletes have to choose if they are absolutely going to reach their potential,” he said. “They’ve said from Day One we didn’t know what this season was going to hold and we didn’t want them to regret anything.”
Farden believes the pandemic added another element of urgency. Last year the Utes were on a roll when the season was unexpectedly canceled, crushing their hopes for the postseason.
They came into the 2021 season with the intent of picking up where they left off. Remarkably, they’ve been able to pull it off to a large extent, competing with an urgency carried over from 2020.
“COVID changed everything,” Farden said. “I think it made them realize the enjoyment they get from competing at a high level and they have made some real sacrifices this year. I don’t think people realize how hard it has been. At regionals they were so happy to just have 2,500 [fans] that you would have thought these athletes had a pot of gold.”
Soloski credits the loss at Oklahoma with playing another role in Utah’s success. The team held a meeting following the loss to affirm their goals and what they needed to do to get there.
“We needed more accountability and at the end of the day we can’t control what others do,” she said. “We have 24 opportunities every meet to be accountable and that was the mindset we wanted, to be positive and say let’s go do this. We wanted the mindset of not fearing failure.”
The most recent chance for that would have been not advancing to the NCAA, breaking the streak of 44 straight appearances. The Utes didn’t want to be that team, so they set the tone from the first with a season high effort on the uneven bars.
“In the past when we finished fifth (2018) and seventh (2019), there was an overall feeling on the team that that was good enough,” Soloski said. “It’s not a discredit to those teams, but this year and last year we had more go-getters. It shouldn’t be good enough for you if you are on this team to just be Utah. We want to be a Utah team that wins a national title.”
Soloski lays it out there, just like she does those floor routines.
So far the Utes have been fearless in their path to the NCAAs; now that they are here, the Utes have no intent to back down now.
“We know it is going to take a pretty near perfect performance,” Soloski said. “But if everyone shows up as the best version of themselves, of the best version of Utah, I see us making the final four.”
From there, who knows what could happen?