Utah gymnasts start season with national title goal

Red Rocks return 23 of 24 routines while adding Olympian Grace McCallum to roster

(Matt Strasen | AP) Maile O’Keefe of Utah competes on the floor at the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, last April. O’Keefe is a leader in a Utah team with high expectations this season.

Building a gymnastics program that can win a national title requires bringing together so many elements. Take a little of this, a little of that and with a little bit of luck the mixture will blend into a championship winning concoction.

This year, the Utes seem to have everything they need for their future master chef moment. Utah coach Tom Farden has been a tireless recruiter, bringing in the most decorated rookie class in program history. The experience is there, with Utah returning 23 of the 24 routines that earned the Utes third place at the 2021 NCAA Championships. There is also a warmth, evident in how the Utes were upset by their fourth in the NCAA preseason poll, one spot behind Florida, a team the Utes beat in the NCAAs.

Indeed, if there was ever a Utah team that looked like it was about to get the sweet taste of an NCAA win, it would be this one.

The Utes, who start their season with the Best of Utah meet on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Maverik Center, are also not hiding expectations, if not pushing them higher.

Best of Utah

Utah, BYU, SUU and State of Utah

January 7 at 7 p.m.

At the Maverik Center

Concrete example, the team’s reaction to the pre-season survey. It would have been easy enough to say they were okay with fourth place but they didn’t and they made it known after their preview of Red Rocks. Maile O’Keefe said it fueled the blaze and Sydney Soloski called it “not insulting” but also low expectations.

“It was pretty flattering that they thought we can qualify for the final day of the NCAAs,” she said. “But this team is coming back all but a routine and we have a class of four incredibly talented women coming in. We know we can do more than just make it to the last day.”

Just look at the list to see why the Utes are so bullish. The rookie class is arguably the most talented in history with Olympian Grace McCallum, Olympic substitute Kara Eaker, British Olympian Amelie Morgan and three-time Olympic junior qualifier Sage Thompson joining the Utes.

The heart of the team’s experience is junior O’Keefe, who won the NCAA titles on uneven bars and floor last year, Abby Paulson, an All-American on beam, the senior Four-time All-American Cristal Isa and senior Adrienne Randall, who started on beam at every competition.

The experience and leadership come from Alexia Burch and Soloski, who have chosen to return for a fifth year as granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic.

The Utes have others pushing for a place in the roster, giving the team the rightful depth of eight gymnasts in each event. It’s a luxury Farden has never had before and he admits handling all that depth will be a big part of 2022.

“We will use it to our advantage,” he said. “But everyone who knows me knows that I’m not afraid to change our training. You have to go there with your gut a lot.

The Utes will have the chance to play with their rosters this season opener when they face BYU, SUU and Utah State. But then the season kicks off in full swing with the home opener against Oklahoma’s No.3 on Bridge, followed by the heart of the Pac-12 schedule.

The challenges are there pending, but the team will be ready, insist the Utes. Utah is proud of what was accomplished in 2021 with a limited roster. This year, the Utes don’t really see a lot of limitations.

“This year is going to be unreal,” said Burch. “We brought in a phenomenal freshman class and the energy kept everyone on the team pushing their limits. We have a lot of dynamism and motivation.

Gymnasts have been around long enough that they don’t take anything for granted. They know teams like Oklahoma, Michigan and so on are also very talented, but there are expectations that this team should do very well. The team is behind many of these expectations.

“If we can stay very healthy and stay in the right frame of mind mentally, I think we can do more than we ever thought we could,” said O’Keefe.


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