Watching Utah’s Kara Eaker command the balance beam at the NCAA Regional Championships was satisfying for her fellow Utes.
But there was a flicker of sadness, too. One can’t help but wonder what the freshman might have done this year if she had been healthy throughout the season.
Eaker’s performances — a 9.95 in the first round then a 10.0 in the finals — helped the Utes win their sessions both days and qualify for the NCAA Championships, which begin Thursday. They were remarkable routines performed under tremendous pressure, especially considering they were only her third and fourth routines since spraining her ankle in the season opener.
What would she have done for the Utes if she had been available on all four events as hoped? Would the Utes’ regular-season losses have been wins? How much better could she have made the vault lineup?
Utah coach Tom Farden isn’t interested in wondering “what if,” choosing to focus on what Eaker can do for the Utes this week when they compete in the NCAA Championships in Forth Worth, Texas.
Because her ankle still isn’t 100%, Eaker will focus on the balance beam, where she makes an already fantastic lineup that much stronger.
“The thing she does in terms of what she brings to the gymnastics world is a world-class presence,” Farden said. “When she walks into a meet she brings such a level of confidence.”
As an alternate to the Olympic team, Eaker isn’t as well-known as her fellow Utah freshman Grace McCallum, who helped the U.S. to a silver medal. Eaker’s Olympic experience was quite different after she tested positive for COVID, forcing her to spend much of her Olympic experience in isolation.
Her luck didn’t change with the Utes as she suffered an ankle injury in the season opener when she landed short during vault warmups — another setback in a “challenging” year for the gymnast.
“That was my first big injury where I had to stop training altogether for a long time,” she said. “I had an end goal of wanting to get out there and compete this year and that motivated me through the rehab process. I wanted to get out there as fast as I could.”
The injury was painful for Farden, too. Farden started following Eaker in her junior high years and knew she was something special. After years of recruiting a star gymnast, the coach not only had to adjust his lineups but also his anticipation.
“I remember the artistry she had even as a young athlete,” he said. “She had an attention to detail and the patience with the way she moved was incredible.”
His sense of talent was spot-on as Eaker bloomed into a four-time USA National Team member who has become one of the world’s best on the balance beam, taking first on the event at the 2019 Pan American Games and fourth at the 2019 World Championships. She was seventh in the all-around, second on the beam and sixth on the floor at the 2021 U.S. Olympic team trials.
Not surprisingly, Eaker was projected to be a candidate in the all-around for the Utes before the ankle injury sidelined her. Now at 80 to 90 percent healthy, Eaker will focus on the beam and possibly the floor if she is needed. She changed the tumbling in her floor routine to all front landings, which is easier on her ankle than reverse landings of the vault.
In addition to the rehab, watching her teammates helped her training too, Eaker said.
“I saw how clean and precise the other girls were and what it takes to be a top contender,” she said.
As she showed at regionals, she has what it takes to compete at that level under pressure. Eaker was just hoping to hit for the team, she had no idea it was going to be judged as perfect.
“To get a 10.0 was amazing,” she said. “I was just trying to do my best because I needed to hit.”
In a perfect world, Eaker would be competing on more than just the beam at nationals. But both she and Farden are happy to take what they can get.
“The rest of the year I just want to make beam the best it can be,” Eaker said.
How to watch the NCAA Gymnastics Championships
When: April 14-16
Where: Fort Worth, Texas
Session 1, 11 a.m. MDT: Oklahoma (vault), Alabama (uneven bars), Minnesota (balance beam), Utah (floor)
Session 2, 4 p.m. MDT: Florida (vault), Missouri (uneven bars), Auburn (balance beam), Michigan (floor)
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