Utah finishes third as Oklahoma wins another NCAA gymnastics championship

Struggles on the vault dash Utes’ hopes for a title

Winning national championships rarely happens as a one-off. It’s a building process of recruiting, coaching philosophy, chemistry and intangibles.

Utah coach Tom Farden keeps adjusting, tweaking and working that process to get the Utes back to the top of the college gymnastics world for the first time since 1995.

Many thought Saturday might be that day; instead, the Utes once again had to watch Oklahoma celebrate a national title.

The Utes finished third for the third year in a row as Oklahoma won the meet in Fort Worth, Texas, with a 198.3875 and Florida was second (198.2375). Utah finished with 197.9375 and LSU was fourth with 197.525.


Saturday, Fort Worth, Texas

Team scores

1. Oklahoma (198.3875)

2. Florida (198.2375)

3. Utah (197.9375)

4. LSU (197.525).

Utah’s recent finishes

2023: third

2022: third

2021: third

2020: Canceled due to COVID

2019: Eliminated in semifinals

2018: Fifth (final year of Super Six format)

It was easy to spot where the Utes lost the title, logging their third-worst vault score of the year with a 49.15 with a team-high of 9.9 coming from Abby Brenner. For comparison, the Utes had a national qualifying score average of 49.43 on the event.

“I felt like some of our vaults tried to stick too hard,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “When you do that you come up short but they gave everything they’ve got and I am proud of them.”

To their credit the Utes didn’t cave, scoring 49.55 on the uneven bars and finishing with 49.7375 on the balance beam, but Oklahoma, which has won national titles in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2022, never faltered either and celebrated their win as Utah completed its final beam routines, which included a 10.0 from Maile O’Keefe.

Utah's Maile O'Keefe competes on the balance beam during the finals of the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, Saturday, April 15, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“After the vault rotation it was a split and they chose the harder direction and kept fighting,” Farden said.

The loss will sting the Utes for a while, but it shouldn’t overshadow what this team has done this season. The Utes won the Pac-12 title and their NCAA region then posted their highest postseason score in history (198.225) to win their NCAA semifinal.

Along the way, O’Keefe became Utah’s first NCAA all-around winner since Theresa Kulikowski in 1999 and the school’s first balance beam champion since Ashley Postell in 2007. O’Keefe and Grace McCallum were the NCAA runners-up on the bars and Cristal Isa was the NCAA runner-up on beam.

O’Keefe, Isa, McCallum, Brenner and Makenna Smith earned All-America honors.

Perhaps most impressive about the team was the way the Utes came together after McCallum injured her knee on Feb. 11.

While McCallum worked hard to get back into the lineup for nationals, the Utes somehow became a better team, improving on the floor and hitting their vaults more consistently.

“They bonded together to fill in for each other and did what they had to do to remain at the elite level,” Farden said. “When we had athletes out they kept plugging along.”

That they couldn’t produce a solid vault rotation Saturday will no doubt motivate the Utes to improve that event in the offseason, much like past disappointments on the balance beam spurred Farden to recruit the best beam workers he could.

“In the big picture I know the Red Rocks faithful might be disappointed but we took another step forward,” Farden said. “We won regionals and the Pac-12s and we beat Oklahoma in the semifinals. I know they were somber about taking third again but I am a realist and know how hard it is to get here and the way they fight tells you the character of this team.”

So shortcomings become inspirations. The process continues.