Maile O’Keefe and the Utes are ready for a regional stress test

O’Keefe is “one of those one in a million” gymnasts, her coach says as the Red Rocks enter postseason competition.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maile O'Keefe scores a 10 on the beam as Utah hosts California, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Anyone who follows Utah gymnastics knows Maile O’Keefe is a great athlete. She has all the records and accolades to prove she deserves a special place in Utah’s archives.

When did she show that she wasn’t just elite, but one of those athletes who, when facing their worst, become better?

It was the way she responded to her biggest miscue this year, when she inexplicably slid off the balance beam in Utah’s loss at Oregon State.

How would she react when the Utes took to the competition floor in the Pac-12 Championships? Would the mistake haunt her, make her compete timidly or doubt herself?

O’Keefe answered any such questions when she nailed her uneven bars routine and shook her fists in triumph.

She went on to a second-place finish in the all-around with a 39.675, but more than anything separated herself into a special category with her attitude, one that she hopes will typify the Utes as they continue the postseason with the NCAA Regional Championships Thursday in Los Angeles.

The fifth-ranked Utes compete in the 3 p.m., session against No. 12 Auburn, Southern Utah and Washington, with the top two teams advancing to Saturday’s finals.

“I got ahead of myself in that Oregon State meet,” she said. “I know we need to stay in the moment and compete one step at a time with the confidence we’ve earned this year and hold our heads high.”

Confidence is a great part of gymnastics, particularly in the postseason where skill sets between teams are similar. That might be why O’Keefe is a huge factor in how the postseason could play out for the Utes.

With all the experience on the team, she more than anyone sets the tone for the Utes.

She isn’t brash or flashy in attitude like the Las Vegas town from which she hails, but she is money, quietly dinging up wins after wins with the fierce way in which she competes.

Already a two-time national champion on the uneven bars (2021) and floor (2021), O’Keefe isn’t one to shrink on the big stage, she shines.

“She is one of those rare athletes who not only breaks records, but others can trust with her fierce competitiveness,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “She is one of those one in a million. The things she does out there are incredible, but she cares about being the complete gymnast for the team, too. It’s a special talent.”

If she is feeling any pressure to lead the Utes now, O’Keefe isn’t showing it. If anything she is eager for the challenges ahead.

“I think this team can do a lot of amazing things,” she said. “Regionals are always the most stressful meet of the year. You just have to get through it one event at a time. We know what we have to do.”

O’Keefe, who announced at Senior Night she would be coming back for another season is in such a small class of perfection that even her seasoned teammates look up to her.

Abby Brenner, a fifth-year gymnast who transferred to the Utes this year from Michigan, says she constantly learning from O’Keefe, even if she is younger.

“The way she isolates and gets in a zone, I’m different, always dancing and singing,” she said. “She goes into this whole other mindset and the coolest thing is to get to learn new things like that.”

The results are scores that bring in the accolades and lift the team. Now, we all have to wonder how far up can she take the Utes?

“The way she competed (after the fall at Oregon State) was a veteran move,” Farden said. “She shows the composure and true confidence of this team.”

NCAA Gymnastics Regionals March 29-April 1

Norman Regional

No. 8 Alabama, No. 9 Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa; Session 2 No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 16 Ohio State, Arkansas, North Carolina State/Ball State

Denver Regional

No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Oregon State, Georgia, Nebraska; Session 2 No. 3 Michigan, No. 14 Denver, Minnesota, Arizona/North Carolina

Los Angeles Regional

No. 5 Utah, No. 12 Auburn, Southern Utah, Washington; Session 2 No. 4 UCLA, No. 13 Missouri, Stanford, BYU/Boise State

Pittsburgh Regional

No. 7 Cal, No. 10 Michigan State, Western Michigan, West Virginia; Session 2 No. 2 Florida, No. 15 Arizona State, Maryland, Towson/Penn State