He is still the new guy on the coaching staff, so Jeff Graba is a little careful what he says. But for the past two weeks, his event the uneven bars has been the University of Utah's gymnastics team's highest-ranked discipline.
Utah's bars team rates No. 2 this week, just behind Georgia, which is Utah's opponent in the Huntsman Center on Monday at 7 p.m.
Georgia is the defending NCAA champion and ranks No. 1 as a team, with Utah No. 3, and Georgia's bars team has the top Regional Qualifying Score of 49.325. Utah's RQS is 49.215.
In other events, the Utes rank third (vault, coach Greg Marsden's event), fifth (beam, associate coach Megan Marsden's event) and ninth (floor, a collaborative event).
"We do have a game amongst the coaches," Graba said.
Coaches are always competitive with each other, in a good-natured way. The Marsdens often playfully note when their events did best in meets.
Each of the events has ranked highly. Right now, bars is on top.
"It is nice to needle Greg on that once in a while," Graba said. "It makes it a little bit fun. But in the end, it's a whole team effort. Until the whole team hits, it's fun, but it really doesn't matter if bars are really good."
Graba was hired last May after long-time bars coach Aki Hummel went into private business. Graba spent the past two seasons on Ray Corn's staff at Utah State after running his own club gym with his twin brother in Minnesota.
Being new has both helped and hurt.
Senior Gabi Onodi seems to have responded and upgraded her bars routine enough that she is at least Monday's alternate depending on whether Utah's best bar-worker, junior Nicolle Ford, can compete after dislocating her right index finger in a workout last Sunday.
Onodi has never been in the bars mix until now.
Graba says it's all her doing, but he concedes, "I'm new enough that maybe I don't know her limitations as well."
He was able to get her to try a release move that would give her enough scoring power to compete. Hummel also tried, but this year, Onodi chose to work on it.
Graba's explanation is that, "I've seen seniors before that see the end of their career coming and they want to make sure they go out with a bang."
He also admits to some cajoling.
"There was a little bit of sweet talk just because we don't have a lot of depth" in that event, he said.
Being new also means Graba has to learn what works for each athlete. And that's essential in this first season of the new code of points, which calls for more difficult skills to give judges more ability to separate and reward those who show excellence.
"It's a lot" to deal with for Graba, "plus it's a lot for the girls because there's a lot of trust factor in gymnastics. Aki had a whole bunch of faith built up with a lot of these girls and you have to start from scratch. They need to be comfortable with you and you need to be comfortable with them.
"We're still finding little things that, if I'd have known that two months ago about these particular athletes, I might have been able to help them a little quicker. But there's always that an idiosyncrasy, a drill, a way to spot them to help them.
"But I think we're well on our way."
The new code forces coaches and athletes in all events into big decisions. Some handle "D" and "E" skills, the most difficult, with ease. Others have to weigh the risk of doing "C" moves well but not being able to score highly with them or of doing "D" moves, on which they are less consistent.
Graba thinks this comes up in bars a lot because judges now expect "D" dismounts. It's kept some athletes out of the lineup and given him and Marsden plenty to gamble on.
Graba grew up in Minnesota and got into gymnastics to improve his wrestling. His younger sister was already a gymnast, and he and his brother both tried it at the club level and eventually gave up wrestling. The boys were considered for gymnastics scholarships at the Air Force Academy but instead went to Minnesota, where Jeff's roommate for two years was future Olympian John Roethlisberger, with whom he's still close.
Roethlisberger e-mailed him several times about Ford's dislocated finger because he competed in the Olympics with the same injury.
"He said, 'I dislocated (a) finger at the Olympics and I know what she's going through. Tell her to stay with it and she can actually do this.' He sent her his best wishes," said Graba.Graba is married to Bridget, who already had three children, Bryan, Jaymie and Jason. The Grabas have had two since their marriage, Kyla and Shayla.
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