Why Utah gymnasts think Carly Dockendorf is the right woman for the job

Dockendorf was named head coach earlier this month after Tom Farden parted ways with the team.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carly Dockendorf, new head coach of Utah gymnastics, speaks with the media at the Dumke Gymnastics Center on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

In the beam section of the Dumke Gymnastics Facility at the University of Utah sits a board with two photos of every Red Rocks gymnast. In one column are photos of the women in their uniforms. In the other, photos of them as children.

Above the gymnastics photos read the words, “What you do.”

Above the childhood photos, “Who you are.”

It’s a representation of what new Red Rocks coach Carly Dockendorf believes: Athletes are more than their sport.

“When you focus so much on the results dictating your personal success, it can eat away at you if you make a mistake,” Dockendorf said. “For them, it takes a lot of work to feel that separation. But once they can, they’re able to go and compete a lot more confident and free.”

Dockendorf was named head coach of the Red Rocks earlier this month after Tom Farden parted ways with the program amid accusations of emotional and verbal abuse. Some gymnasts who came out either anonymously or publicly against him alleged he damaged their self-worth with a harsh approach that some said they felt crossed the line into verbal abuse.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaylene Gilstrap performs on the beam during the Red Rocks Preview at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

While it hasn’t been said explicitly, the Red Rocks seem to be making sure that situation never happens again.

Fifth-year senior Abby Paulson said the gymnasts have always been encouraged to see the university’s mental health professionals if they feel the need. But now, she said, there’s an even greater focus on seeking out that help.

“Now I think we do truly need to focus on it, and if you notice somebody struggling, either encourage them to see [the specialists], [or] pull them aside,” Paulson said. “I think the coaches have been really good about recognizing when people are struggling.”

The team took a few days off after the allegations against Farden first surfaced “just to make sure everyone was OK,” Paulson said. During her introductory media availability last week, Dockendorf stressed the importance of her gymnasts’ mental health.

“I think that student health and well-being is the No. 1 priority,” Dockendorf said. “That is a huge focus for myself as a female. I have two daughters of my own and I just see their generation growing up, and that’s a big focus for me. We do a lot of training with our sports psychologist, and just day-to-day emphasis on who they are as people and not necessarily as athletes.”

Dockendorf said she’s been leaning on her five seniors to help with leadership as she transitions into the head coaching role. They’ve been mentoring the incoming freshmen and helping the staff find “blind spots” and areas of improvement, she said.

“I think that just speaks to her as a person,” fifth-year senior Maile O’Keefe said. “Always willing to hear people’s outlooks and take them into consideration.”

From a logistical standpoint, the Red Rocks coaches had to shift a bit with Dockendorf’s promotion. She will still coach beam, and Jimmy Pratt will take over bars completely and coach some vault as well. Dockendorf added that she will help out on vault, and Myia Hambrick will coach floor.

But as the new face of the gymnastics program, it’ll be Dockendorf who will bear the responsibility of team success. The athletes themselves, though, believe she is more than up to the challenge.

“There’s no better person to do it than Carly,” fifth-year senior Jaedyn Rucker said. “We couldn’t imagine them picking somebody else.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Makenna Smith celebrates with her teammates after performing on the bars during the Red Rocks Preview at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

Even some of the team’s high-level recruits have heard great things about Dockendorf. Zoe Johnson said that while she was on recruiting visits, she heard from other gymnasts that Dockendorf was “like a mom to them” and “very calm.” Avery Neff, the No. 1 recruit in the country, said she has faith that Dockendorf “will carry this program and keep the legacy going.”

Dockendorf joined the Red Rocks as a volunteer coach in 2018 before being promoted to Director of Recruiting Development the following year. She was named an assistant coach in 2020, then became associate head coach under Farden in 2022.

As a younger athlete, Dockendorf excelled in both gymnastics and pole vault, and even coached pole vault at one point in her career. She said the technical nature of the track and field event and the attention to detail it takes to perform and analyze it are aspects that she will bring to coaching the Red Rocks.

But what’s most important to her is constantly reminding her athletes that their sport is just one aspect of their identity. She directs her athletes to think about something other than gymnastics during their events to take the pressure off their performance.

Dockendorf said Grace McCallum used to recite the names of her siblings from oldest to youngest. Some of them sing songs in their head — Paulson’s artist of choice is Taylor Swift. Rucker said she was asked to think of Dory from “Finding Nemo.”

Dockendorf also said that earlier this fall, she asked the gymnasts to list three obstacles that would hold them back from reaching their goals, and “99.9% of the answers” were related to them as humans, not athletes.

The Red Rocks have been perennial contenders for national championships, and this season appears to be no different. But after a tumultuous few months that saw the team lose their head coach a month before the season, all eyes are looking to what’s ahead.

“We’re really focusing on the next step,” Dockendorf said. “We’ve been through a challenging time. I think this team is really ready to take that next step forward.”