Coming off an NCAA Championship run that led to the program's best finish since 2015, Utah gymnastics has high hopes heading into the 2022 season with a squad that returns all but one routine from last year's third place finish at nationals. With arguably one of the most talented freshman classes in program history being added to the mix, there is a sense of excitement brewing in Salt Lake City, but no season comes without putting the work in.
“Confidence is always something that everyone in the program has to take a choice to engage in and believe in,” said head coach Tom Farden. “When that happens and is paired with leadership, discipline and commitment, magic can happen. I don't want to say last year was magic, but I think it was a combination of everyone coming together on the same page and believing in achieving greatness.”
Farden continued, “So does it continue on this year? It should, but every year is different and every team is different. We have two new coaches on the staff and added arguably one of the most talented freshman classes in the history of our program. This year, like any year, will have its own challenges even though the roster seems to be very strong.”
Although the 2021 season held many unknowns heading into the year, the Red Rocks responded to every challenge thrown their way and would go on to win the program's second-straight Pac-12 Regular Season Championship, fourth Pac-12 Championship, and an NCAA Regional title before the strong finish at the NCAA Championships.
Maile O'Keefe led the team in a breakout season where she was named the Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, won four Pac-12 titles (AA, UB, BB, FX), was the regional balance beam champion, and became the fifth Ute in history to win two NCAA titles on the same night as she became the NCAA champion in bars and floor. Utah also boasted a total of five Pac-12 champions, seven All-Pac-12 selections, five regular season All-Americans and four NCAA All-Americans.
“Last year was one of the most difficult years in coaching in regards to no fans, COVID-19 protocols, restrictions, motivating the athletes, and just the uncertainty surrounding the season,” said Farden. “We really feel like the athletes responded with flying colors. They rose to the challenge every week and we really feel they maxed out their performances and peaked at the right time. It is a challenging thing to do, something that we always seek to do, and was something we were able to do last season.'
Returning the talents of O'Keefe and All-Americans Sydney Soloski, Cristal Isa, Abby Paulson and Alexia Burch, along with the entire lineup of returners for Utah can only bode well with another year of experience under their belts. Joining the pool of talent in Salt Lake City are Olympic medalists Grace McCallum and Amelie Morgan, Olympic alternate and two-time World Champion Kara Eaker, along with uneven bars national champion Sage Thompson.
“What this class brings as far as a freshman class is yet to be seen, but what I do know is that the four of them in each of their own individual gymnastics creates kind of a super charge class,” explained Farden. “Sage is a local product and national champion on bars where she specializes and is excelling. Amelie is someone who has an undeniable work ethic and passion for this sport, coming out of the UK with a bronze medal. Kara is internationally known for exquisite performance qualities and what our fans will really notice is her attention to detail and precision. Grace is a silver medalist and true all-arounder. Her quiet, but determined demeanor will rub off and she works her gymnastics with confidence and pure joy. We could go on and on about this class and their accolades to date.”
Utah will be tested week in and week out this year as the non-conference schedule holds NCAA Championship contenders from a year ago in Oklahoma (2nd place), LSU (6th) and Minnesota (8th). The Utes begin the season with the annual Rio Tinto Best of Utah at the Maverik Center, gaining podium experience early on. The Red Rocks will also face its usual conference opponents as the Pac-12 continues to be one of the most competitive conferences in gymnastics.
“One of the things we want to do to prepare our team for the postseason is getting on podium a couple of times and we were able to check that box with the Best of Utah and Pac-12 Championships,” Farden said of the schedule. “The other thing that was important to us for this particular schedule was having out of conference opponents that are of the highest caliber and with NCAA Championship teams Oklahoma, Minnesota, LSU, we feel we accomplish that. Our conference slate alternates and this year we happen to be at California and at UCLA, which are some of our toughest conference foes, but not to be left out is Arizona State, which is making a surge in our conference.”
One of the most exciting feature of the 2022 season for Utah gymnastics is the return of fans to arenas and specifically to the Huntsman Center. Coming off a NCAA record 15,273 fans per meet in 2020, the Red Rocks lacked the extra spark last year provided by the best fans in the country. With no women's NCAA sport averaging more fans than Utah gymnastics in 10 years, the Red Rocks are counting down the days until they get to compete in a packed Huntsman Center.
“What the fans do here is beyond what people know. The support they have provided for these past 46 years does not go unnoticed or underappreciated. The fact that our program has enjoyed this level of fandom for so long speaks volumes for those who have come before and those who are doing it now. The emotional tailwind that our athletes receive during a gymnastics meet is indescribable. When you stand in the middle of the floor and you take a panoramic view of the stands, it really is breathtaking to know that that many people came to watch the Red Rocks. To be just a small part of this and see it firsthand again this season, it really will bring chills and goosebumps. It will be like the first time I saw the Red Rock nation come out in early January against UCLA at home in 2011. I remember it like it was yesterday and will always remember it.”
The Utah vaulters return every routine from last season and expect to have five to seven capable 10.0 start-value vaults. Highlighting the returners is Alexia Burch, who was named the Pac-12 Specialist of the Year in 2021. Burch was a regular season All-American on vault with a 9.931 NQS and has spent most of the last two seasons at the anchor spot. Joining Burch is All-Pac-12 selections on vault Jaedyn Rucker and Cammy Hall, along with Lucy Stanhope, who all competed Yurchenko 1.5s last season. Looking to add to the mix will be freshmen Grace McCallum, Amelie Morgan and Kara Eaker, who are bringing 10.0 vaults to the table.
“We are really excited about vault and our athletes being mentored under a new coach. Jimmy Pratt brings a lot of experience and knowledge to that event that I believe we will yield good results. We have several athletes that are capable of 10.0 vaults and some that are working on debuting them. We are infusing some additional vaults into the lineup and looking for some more firepower. Our goal is to have between five and seven capable 10.0 vaults. We would love to see that happen and are working toward it as we know vault is a separating event.”
The uneven bars lineup is the only event that loses a routine from last season after needing to replace half the lineup the year before (2020). Maile O'Keefe comes back as the reigning NCAA champion on bars and will look to lead Utah on the event once again, while Cristal Isa is also returning as an NCAA All-American on the event and Pac-12 uneven bars champion with O'Keefe. Abby Paulson, Alexia Burch and Alani Sabado round out the returners that had begun to find some rhythm together in the postseason. Capable of entering the lineups will also be the entire freshman class.
“Bars is an area that we needed to shore up and this freshman class is definitely going to do that. All four freshman should have vying bar routines. We know we need to do better on bars and understand it was our lowest ranked event last year. Last year, we were in a little bit of a rebuilding phase and we do feel that we finished the year on bars the way we wanted to. Maile and Cristal - our Nevada connection - and really Alexia Burch for that matter, could find themselves in the lineup easily. Maile is the reigning national champion and has really done an incredible job of owning one of the most challenging dismounts done in the NCAA.”
The depth to Utah's balance beam team is arguably the best it has ever been. Utah finished the year ranked No. 3 on the event with O'Keefe, Paulson and Isa all earning All-American honors in the regular season. O'Keefe finished tied for first in the nation on beam where she excelled all season, recording a 9.975 NQS after posting a 9.90 or better in 12-of-14 meets, while Paulson finished sixth in the nation with a 9.95 NQS and went 9.90 or better in 10 meets. With the support of Adrienne Randall, Stanhope and Burch, Utah's beam team already looks strong on paper to begin the year and adding in the talents of McCallum, Eaker and Morgan only strengthen an already exceptional event for the Utes.
“Balance beam this year without losing a single routine from one of the best beam teams in the country and then infusing world class beam workers in Grace, Amelie and Kara only bodes well for the future. That particular event is stunning and we are so proud of the fact that beam is a strength of Utah. Carly Dockendorf deserves all the credit. With returners such as Maile, Abby, Cristal, Lucy, Adrienne and Alexia, balance beam will have not only the depth that we need but also the highest of quality.”
The floor squad for the Red Rocks will be loaded with talent and will see many gymnasts battling for spots in the lineup on a weekly basis. O’Keefe brings back an NCAA title on floor to lead the Utes and four-time All-American on floor Sydney Soloski will look to continue her strong run as she closes out her career. Key returners for the Red Rocks on floor are also Rucker, Stanhope, Paulson, Isa and Randall. Once again, the freshman class will look to make some noise on the event as well, providing even more depth across the board.
“Floor exercise is again one of those areas that we feel we have a net gain. We lost zero floor routines and are adding in freshman and two athletes coming back off injuries in Jillian Hoffman and Jaylene Gilstrap. Both of those athletes are capable of competing high scoring and well-executed routines. This year our goal on floor is to get many of our athletes experience and by the end of the regular season start to dial in our postseason lineups. Sydney continues to be one of the most watched NCAA gymnasts with her style and high-flying tumbling captivating so many fans across the country. Maile, who is the reigning NCAA champion, brings her exquisite dance and her precision and accuracy in her tumbling, and is just phenomenal on floor. That duo could serve us well once again.”