Utah Utes gymnastics: With a bevy of newcomers, Red Rocks will rely on veterans to show the way

Published: Thursday, Jan. 6 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Kyndal Robarts and Gael Mackie are part of the Utes' new leadership council, which has helped the team's six freshmen adjust.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY —The potential for a difficult season stares an oh-so-young Utah gymnastics team in the face as it prepares to host top-ranked, defending NCAA champion UCLA in the Huntsman Center on Friday night at 7 to open a tough 2011 schedule.

But also looking in on the fifth-ranked Utes is strong promise, with a freshmen class that includes 2008 Canadian Olympian Nansy Damianova and 2008 U.S. Olympic Team alternate Corrie Lothrop.

Co-coach Megan Marsden admits she transitioned from last April's NCAA championships, where the Utes finished sixth, to thinking with some reservation about the 2011 squad that is half freshmen.

"I was dreading it. I felt like it was going to be almost an insurmountable challenge to bring that many freshmen along," she said.

But after four months of pre

season work, "It's been a pleasant surprise," Marsden said. "It's just been a better year than what we thought it was going to be with so many new kids."

She credits seniors Kyndal Robarts, Gael Mackie and Jacq Johnson, along with junior Cortni Beers — Utah's new leadership council — for making the transition to college easier for the freshmen by genuinely befriending them.

"We have a good atmosphere and really great chemistry," said Robarts, the unquestioned on-floor leader and role model, a first-team All-American vaulter who was 2010 NCAA regional beam and all-around runner-up. "And so far, it's been the most fun preseason that I've had.

"The new girls bring a lot of energy, and it's fresh, and they work really hard — and they're good, too, so it's really encouraging. It makes being in here fun."

Mackie, a 2004 Canadian Olympian and later a member of her country's World Championships team, and Johnson, a two-year member of Team USA who was on the 2006 World Championships team, agree about this team's tight bonds.

And they are a big part of that.

Mackie's career has been fraught with injury, and last summer at her family's cabin, she stepped wrong and badly injured her good ankle. The other ankle kept her out of most events last year. But she's training all events again now and hopes to make big strides.

Co-coach Greg Marsden said she's already contributed in a way he never expected.

"She has taken some of the freshmen under her wing," he said. "It really surprised me. I didn't see this part of Gael until this year," he said.

"It makes me feel good, having a role like that," said Mackie.

"I think, with it being my last year, it kind of hit me. I remember as a freshman what the seniors were like, and I just kind of felt comfortable with that role, whereas before, I was the one that needed a leader."

Johnson, who's also never reached her potential because of injuries, reported to camp in the best shape of anyone on the team, giving them all something to think about.

"She won all of our strength testing when we reported back. She blew everybody else away on the total," said Greg Marsden, now in his 36th year as the Utes' coach.

"It is my last season, and I just wanted to put in everything I had over the summer to get into the best shape I could be so that I could have a really good senior season," said Johnson, who's, "Knock on wood, healthy for once."

Leadership brings with it accountability, and Robarts, Mackie and Johnson appear ready for that.

"Yeah, that's OK with me," said Robarts.

Mackie said thinking about the whole group during meets should help her, too.

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