Why gymnast Jaedyn Rucker’s value to the Utes goes beyond her national championship

The skilled vaulter has become a leader for the No. 5 Red Rocks.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaedyn Rucker performs on vault during the fourth-annual Rio Tinto Best of Utah gymnastics meet between Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, Utah State University and the University of Utah at the Maverik Center, Jan. 13, 2023. Rucker received a 9.925.

There was a time during Jaedyn Rucker’s freshman season when she admits she was a little sad. She couldn’t compete for the Utes’ gymnastics team due to an injured knee and wasn’t totally sure of her place on the team.

“I had been waiting and waiting and waiting to get my chance to compete,” she said. “I had to learn to switch my mindset to more positive things and realize even though I wasn’t competing, I had an opportunity to be a part of an amazing program. I just needed to switch my mindset to do amazing things.���

Suffice it to say, Rucker made that switch successfully.

Now in her senior year, Rucker recovered from her knee injury to win an NCAA championship on the vault last year. Not only is she a strong competitor for the fifth-ranked Utes but also a respected leader.

Rucker is the one that many teammates go to during the meet for a quick chat, whether it is to get them focused or to relieve some tension. Watch Rucker and she looks almost like a coach on the floor the way she navigates her teammates.

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She goes about her business quietly, but her efforts are noticed.

“I don’t think Jaedyn gets talked about enough,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “She came in as a highly touted athlete from the club system and had two surgeries on her knee so it took her time to blossom. But now she is the reigning national vault champion and works hard behind the scenes for the team. I don’t know if fans know how critical she is.”

Rucker savors her role, considering how her career started. The injury she sustained when she was a high school senior caused scar tissue in the knee area that had to be cleaned up, which meant she couldn’t compete for the Utes until she was a sophomore.

Still not at full strength, Rucker nevertheless excelled enough to be the Pac-12 floor co-champion and hit 28 of 29 routines.

Last year she had her breakthrough on the vault when she and Utah assistant Jimmy Pratt changed her approach to her vault landing.

“I used to have a blind landing and we worked on it last year so I could spot the ground coming into the landing,” she said. “It just clicked right before nationals. Now I know how to adjust when I get in the air to get the landing that I want.”

Rucker finished the season with five vault scores of 9.9 or higher, including a season-high of 9.975 and the 9.9625 she scored at the NCAA Championships to become the school’s first NCAA vault champion since MyKayla Skinner won in 2018.

Rucker has started the 2023 season strong, scoring 9.875 on the vault in the season opener and a 9.925 in the second meet. As important as her scores are, her presence as a leader on the floor is just as crucial.

“She has an emphatic heart,” Farden said. “She brings a calmness to the competition. Her best work is one on one with her teammates.”

While still striving to improve, Rucker sounds happy with her place on the team now, almost thankful for that slow start.

“Sitting out my freshman year, I learned how to get to know people,” she said. “I couldn’t do gymnastics so I saw things differently and I have been able to build that. I know how things work and I’m in a good place so I can help other people.”