Why the nation’s No. 1 gymnastics recruit is sticking with Utah amid controversy and change

Avery Neff and Zoe Johnson said they were ‘worried’ and ‘nervous’ about the allegations, but still felt good about officially signing with the Red Rocks.

Avery Neff dreamed of competing for the Utah Red Rocks since she was a little girl. She attended meets as often as possible, soaking in the raucous crowds at the Huntsman Center as the program kept winning at a high level.

When programs were officially allowed to recruit gymnasts, many went hard after Neff, the No. 1 recruit in the country. The Bingham High product ended up choosing Utah as a junior, and signed her national level of intent late last month.

But when Neff arrives on campus after next fall, one major Red Rocks figure won’t be there.

The U. and Red Rocks coach Tom Farden parted ways last month, not long after he was put on paid leave and only months removed from an investigation into allegations that he had been verbally and emotionally abusing his gymnasts and other staff members for years.

That, however, won’t change Neff’s mind.

“I hate to see him go with the experiences I had with him,” Neff said Wednesday. “But it’s not in my hands.”

Another recruit, Zoe Johnson, who competes with Sonshine Gymnastics in North Carolina and won a national title in 2022, said Monday that she spoke with now-interim coach Carly Dockendorf hours after Farden’s leave became public and was told he probably wouldn’t return to Utah.

“I was hoping that he might have a chance to [return],” Johnson said. “But after talking with [Dockendorf], I set my expectations that he probably was more than likely not gonna come back.”

An internal investigation exonerated Farden, but the university later placed him on paid administrative leave for what it called “recent conduct and actions” that “simply do not align with our values and expectations.” The U. said that those actions were “not related to student-athlete welfare.”

A subsequent Washington Post story quoted Farden’s lawyer, Brian C. Johnson, as saying the coach would “likely” sue former gymnasts Kara Eaker and Kim Tessen for public statements they’ve made against him in recent weeks, and that he did not plan on changing his coaching style. Farden was placed on leave shortly after a Post reporter asked the university about Johnson’s comments, per the story.

Johnson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Tribune initially spoke to Neff and Johnson one day before the announcement that Farden had left the program. They said they were “worried” and “nervous” about the allegations, but expressed confidence in the coach or program as a whole.

“I was more worried that these allegations were going to make other recruits not want to come to Utah,” Neff said at the time. “I know if I didn’t know much about the program and I was from a different state ... then I would be a little nervous to be recruited from there.”

Neff, who is in the middle of her senior year at Bingham, called Farden “an amazing head coach” and said many gymnasts have described him as a father figure.

“I love Tom,” Neff said. “He loves his girls with all his heart and would do anything for them.”

Neff added Wednesday, however, that she only interacted with Farden from a recruiting standpoint.

Neff said Farden visited her and her family at home in the time between when the allegations first surfaced and his administrative leave. During the visit, she said, Farden checked up on her and asked how she was feeling amid what was being said in the news. She also said he tried to “ease our minds a little bit” and “make us feel a little bit better.”

“That just showed how much he really loves me and the program and wants the program to succeed,” Neff said.

Neff wasn’t the only high-level recruit who had concerns. Johnson said last week that hearing about the allegations made her “a little bit nervous.”

“Obviously nobody wants to go into that kind of environment,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it was even more difficult for her to see the allegations from afar. She goes to high school in North Carolina and hasn’t been to Utah since her official visit last year.

However, Johnson still signed her letter of intent. She added Monday that she “really liked” and “respected” Farden, but also said “he could be a little bit intimidating.”

Johnson said Farden’s departure didn’t have a major impact on her comfortability in attending Utah.

“I made the decision to go to Utah for a reason,” Johnson said. “So I was pretty confident that I was still going to stay there.”

NCAA athletes can now back out of their NLIs if there is a coaching change, per a policy update announced in June. But other Utah recruits appear to be staying put as well.

Screenshot of a recent Instagram story by Utah Red Rocks recruit Ella Zirbes.

Screenshot of a recent Instagram story by Utah Red Rocks recruit Camie Winger.

Two five-star recruits, Ella Zirbes and Camie Winger, appeared to express their continued commitment to the U. via social media. They both posted Instagram stories that featured a post by the gymnastics program with the caption, “All in.” Zirbes’s post read, “what the caption said,” while Winger’s post read, in all caps, “We over me. I love this team.”

Johnson suggested that the Red Rocks program is bigger than the head coach, and expressed confidence in the program’s ability to continue competing at a high level without Farden.

“I definitely think that the head coach has a lot to do with the program, and I definitely think he did a great job,” Johnson said. “But I also feel like there are a lot of moving parts to that team, and I feel like the depth that they have goes way beyond just Tom.”

Neff said she planned to take the situation in stride, no matter what ended up happening with Farden.

“I’m gonna make the best out of every situation,” Neff said.

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