Utah gymnast Grace McCallum learns the value of having fun

The Utes square off against UCLA Friday in a match that will eventually help decide the Pac-12 title race.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grace McCallum competes on the floor as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.

As Grace McCallum moved on the balance beam, counting off her turns with her fingers during Utah’s meet against Washington, Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden walked away with a huge smile on his face and shook his head.

“Kids,” he said.

Actually, the coach might have been witnessing McCallum grow up.

In her second year with the Utes, McCallum is showing Utah gymnastics fans how far she has come, not only in her athletic abilities but her overall approach to collegiate gymnastics. As a longtime participant at the elite level, McCallum previously learned the importance of precise routines. Now as a sophomore, she is understanding and enjoying the fun of selling her routines in a playful way.

“It is fun to see her personality developing in these routines,” Farden said. “She is finding out how much fun gymnastics can be.”

No. 4 Utah vs. No. 5 UCLA

Friday, 7 p.m.

Huntsman Center


For all of her skills, the Wolf turn — when a gymnast brings the straight leg inward toward the bent leg and pivots on the leg that is on the beam or floor, completing a full circle — quickly has become McCallum’s signature move with the Utes, so it is fitting it is now her most playful, too.

She decided to count off her turns because one judge thought she failed to connect the triple and double turns when in fact they are meant to be separated by the pause.

“I wanted to let them know they are separate and that was one of the ways to do it,” she said. “I have a couple of ideas of how to do it so I might change it up each week for a surprise for everybody.”

McCallum’s next chance at doing so will be Friday when the fourth-ranked Utes host No. 5 UCLA in a Pac-12 showdown at 7 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.

The meet will go a long way in deciding the regular season Pac-12 championship. The Utes are coming off a confidence-building 197.975-196.35 win over Washington while UCLA tied with Oregon State 197.275.

“I’m really excited for this meet because I don’t feel we have hit our peak yet,” McCallum said. “We haven’t done our best routines yet.”

It’s hard to imagine how much better McCallum can get.

Her season started off on a down note when she sat her first vault, but her season has been full of 9.9s or higher since then. Against Washington, she earned 9.95s on the uneven bars and floor, the 9.9 on the beam and a 9.85 on the vault.

It’s clear from the way she is playing with the crowd she is more comfortable in the college setting than she was last year, when she joined the team late following the Olympics and ensuing tour.

“Last year I had a lot of pressure,” McCallum admitted. “There were a lot of high expectations and this year I feel like I have gotten more comfortable with the team and I am letting my personality come out. You can showcase your personality a lot better in college.”

That ability, to show more individualism and pure lighthearted fun, is something Farden enjoys seeing in his athletes. At this level, he knows he is recruiting elite gymnasts capable of performing all kinds of difficult skills, but can they sell them in the way the college atmosphere expects?

“I know it’s my job to hang banners and win and all that stuff,” Farden said. “But what people don’t understand is I find as much professional and personal fulfillment in seeing how these gymnasts learn to express themselves and grow, that is fulfilling.”

McCallum is in that stage now, still honing her gymnastics but also learning, and loving, the creative side she is showing.

There is more to come, she promises, as she explores other ways to make her routines fun. Keep an eye on her and don’t forget to count them out.

“I feel really good about this season,” she said. “It’s amazing what we could have in store.”