Brad Rock: Utah Ute gymnasts gunning for title

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2005 9:33 a.m. MST

Some things just don't compute.For instance, has it really been seven years since the Jazz were in the NBA Finals? Eleven years since Monica Seles was stabbed by a crazed fan? Has Pete Rose really been trying to get back into baseball for 15 years?

Here's another brain-bender: It's been 10 years since the Ute gymnastics team won a national championship.

So maybe it's time to win another.

"We've felt that way for a long time," says coach Greg Marsden.

The No. 1-ranked Ute women continue tonight at Oregon State. Which means, of course, fans of the "Red Rocks" are continuing with their great expectations. How great? Urban Meyer great.

King-of-the-hill, top-of-the-heap great. Like George Steinbrenner and McDonald's, the Utes don't play for second. Their goal isn't to be the best in the state or region; it's to be the best in the entire flyaway-dismounting, glide-kipping, stag-leaping country.

"Well, yeah. Of course," says Marsden. "In the final analysis, anytime you compete, it's more fun to win than to lose. If you don't want to deal with that aspect, maybe you should book Kingsbury Hall and perform on a stage."

So that's all cleared up.

Marsden isn't content with second.

This certainly isn't the first time the Utes have been ranked No. 1 recently. They made No. 1 in the rankings twice last season, both in January. In 2003 they were No. 1 on Jan. 27 but fell to No. 4 the next week. They made No. 1 a couple of times in 2002 and once each in the previous two years.

But being rated No. 1 and winning titles are two different (to use a gymnastics phrase) routines. Last year they felt they had a good chance to win. But after a strong showing in the regional, promising all-arounder Rachel Tidd showed up with mononucleosis and didn't compete at nationals. Utah wound up in sixth place. The previous year was another strong season. But three-time NCAA champ Theresa Kulikowski tore a rotator cuff, and the Utes finished sixth then, also.

It's not as though it could be called a drought. Utah is the only school to qualify for every NCAA Championship, has won 10 titles and finished in the top three five other times. But once you've been to the mountaintop, you start appreciating the view.

But it's a different world than it was 20 or 30 years ago. When the Utes began winning titles in 1981, their competition included teams like Cal-Fullerton, Clarion and Southwest Missouri State. Utah could offer something the others couldn't. Since then, smaller schools have dropped out — building gymnastics practice facilities isn't cheap — and bigger, wealthier schools jumped in. Now, instead of recruiting against Clarion and Southwest Missouri, Utah's competition is Georgia, Alabama, UCLA, Stanford and Florida.

The Utes are up against schools famous for being famous, some of which have their meets aired on ESPN. At a few schools, the coaches have their own TV shows.

Given the Utes' success, Marsden has no illusions of security.

When he started three decades ago, most gymnastics coaches were volunteers.

Nobody got fired because it was difficult finding a replacement. Now top-level gymnastics coaches are treated like (gasp!) football coaches.

They win or they leave.

"(Athletic director) Chris (Hill) and I are great friends, but we know that if I falter with the program and the results are not acceptable, he may have to replace me," says Marsden.

That in spite of the reality that winning titles nowadays is significantly harder. What began as a seasonal job is now a 50-week-a-year commitment.

So he continues on, hoping to get back to the top. If his Big Four gymnasts (Tidd, Annabeth Eberle, Nicolle Ford and Ashley Postell) remain healthy and perform adequately, there's a good chance. (The Utes have already dispatched previously No. 1-ranked UCLA this season.) If not, it could mean the difference between first and sixth.

Worse yet, it could mean the difference between being on the mountaintop and simply remembering the view.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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