Utah gymnasts look to turn a ‘somber moment’ into some momentum

The Red Rocks finished third at the NCAA finals for third year in a row, but they believe they took a step in the right direction nonetheless.

(Tony Gutierrez | AP) Utah's Maile O'Keefe competes in the floor exercise during the semifinals of the NCAA women's gymnastics championships Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Red Rocks’ breakthrough didn’t come last week, when the Utes finished the NCAA championships third behind Florida and Oklahoma.

It didn’t take place when Maile O’Keefe climbed atop the podium as Utah’s first all-around winner since 1999.

It came in the semifinal session when the Utes advanced to the finals by winning the session. Yes, Utah would have loved to have completed its postseason by winning its first NCAA title since 1995. But the Utes believe their win over the Sooners in the semifinals proved they have what it takes to win it all.

“Coming out on top on Day 1 was eye-opening for our team,” gymnast Jaedyn Rucker said. “I don’t think a lot of people saw us as a national championship team and that was a huge step for us. Next year we are going to have the mindset from the beginning about what we can do.”

The Utes believe they are good enough to win an NCAA title. They have the skills and coaching system in place along with the stocked talent, they just need that one day when everything culminates.

The fact that it didn’t happen Saturday was disappointing, a “somber moment,” in the words of head coach Tom Farden, but the salve for the shortcoming was looking ahead.

The Utes lose some of their key leadership with Cristal Isa, Jillian Hoffman and Abby Brenner moving on, but they return much of the heart of their team with O’Keefe, Rucker and Abby Paulson returning for their fifth years and talented gymnasts such as Makenna Smith, Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum with eligibility remaining.

There is always the chance that McCallum or others could leave in hopes of landing a spot in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but the takeaway from the season is the Utes not only have the talent to win, they have the knowledge.

That understanding arguably is more important than who actually is in the leotards. The Utes have had talent to win before but didn’t because they lacked the winning edge. That quality no longer exists.

The carryover to the future has Farden excited as much as how his team competed in the finals this year.

“What this team achieved in my mind is setting a standard for the team culture,” Farden said. “Every year we have made a jump. From 2020 to 2021 to 2022 and this. In some ways, we have been moving in the right direction.”

Credit Farden for allowing some of the key change to happen. Farden is well known for his attention to details and the way he guards his plans. In many ways he is more like a football coach than a gymnastics coach, always careful to not give too many details lest a rival can glean a bit that might help them.

But Farden loosened his grip some with the program this year, turning over much of the leadership to his “six pack” of seniors. That move worked so well in creating better chemistry and team leadership it has changed his views of what he needs to do as a coach.

“They taught me that as much as I want to be in control as a coach, the athletes’ voices and knowledge are so valuable that they need to drive the bus more,” Farden said. “We work hard at team bonding and chemistry but when it comes to bridging those roads they are the best agents.”

Rucker said Farden’s shift was a noticeable difference as the team had more input in how much they practiced, lineups, etc.

“All of us noticed and were like, ‘Tom what is wrong with you,’” she joked. “It definitely helped us a lot. ... It created an environment that was safe and cool if you needed to talk to Tom.”

Farden plans to use the seniors to help their newcomers – Olivia Kennedy, Elizabeth Ganter, Ella Zirbes and Camie Winger — to assimilate into the team. One of their first forays together will be a trip to South Korea in June to train and participate with Korean teams. Farden sees it as a chance to give the team a life experience, bond and of course open some recruiting doors.

“We have a lot of talent coming in and those freshmen are going to want spots,” he said. “Just like Makenna Smith came in and earned spots they are going to want to do the same.”

So expect shuffles in the lineups next year and get ready for some new faces. All those adjustments are appropriate for a team that not only knows where it wants to go, but also knows it belongs.

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