A year ago, few would likely have picked Ute gymnast Jamie Deetscreek to be the smiling trendsetter.
But there she was Thursday in the Dumke practice facility, face beaming, wearing a new bright red T-shirt she'd just picked up at the bookstore as a souvenir of the football team's 13-0 season.
The shirt had a "U" framed by a drawing of the thumbs-and-forefingers "U" hand gesture that a national television audience became familiar with during the Utes'Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
"I had to get a book, and I saw it, and I was, like, 'Hey, we did the 'U' thing first, so I have to get that shirt,"' said Deetscreek, so happy to have finally become an all-arounder to start her junior season which continues tonight when the third-ranked Utes (1-1) host No. 25 Washington (3-1) in the Huntsman Center at 7 for the "Power of Pink" breast-cancer awareness meet. Anyone wearing pink gets a free general-admission ticket.
Utah gymnastics did start that now-famous "U" hand sign, though it's taken a while to catch on with the school's other teams. Gymnastics super fan John Bircumshaw began making the "U" sign to Melissa Vituj during meets five or six years ago, and she began flashing the "U" back to him. The gym team began doing it regularly to fans, who reciprocated, and football players and fans began using it last year.
Deetscreek used to be known to her teammates as a great practice gymnast.
"And then when it would come time for the meet, I would do weird things and be all over the place," she said. "The biggest aspect of my improvement has been in the mental area."
She has learned to use mental cues to help transfer what she does in practice to the competition floor. For instance, on beam, she now counts to keep from going too quickly.
And she smiles.
"It's always more fun if you're doing well and the hard work is showing," she said, fresh off a career-best 39.275.
Deetscreek's improvement was a huge help to Utah in its 197.15-196.725 loss Monday at Georgia, one of the country's toughest places to compete because of the pressure of going against the four-time defending NCAA champions and their raucous fans.
Gael Mackie fell as Utah's first beamwalker, as the Utes and Gym Dogs went into the final event tied, and that put pressure on the other five beamers to hit their routines. Deetscreek, next up, sailed through her routine for a 9.825, and despite a low score of 48.95, the beam team did well.
"You wouldn't be able to tell by the score, but I had athletes that did a really good job, did more of what we've been working on in training," said Ute associate head coach Megan Marsden. "And that is, their mental approach that allows them to do a routine (in a meet) like they do in training."
They're supposed to walk through the routine as if they're just strolling down a sidewalk instead of a four-inch wide plank four feet off the ground.
Deetscreek did just that, as did three teammates Kristina Baskett, Daria Bijak and Nina Kim.
"They did things with amplitude, they worked aggressive and big, as opposed to trying to stay on the beam," said Marsden.
"But if you just look at a 48.95, you think, 'Wow.' I felt like all four of the athletes that did walk-through routines were underscored," she said, but it was a good experience to come through in a tough situation.
Head coach Greg Marsden hopes that continues tonight , so soon after the big rivalry meet and with little practice in between. His biggest worry is letdown.
"I just hope they can remain focused and turn it back on," he said. Of Washington, he added, "They're getting better every year and every week. It's a program that's on the rise."
"Letdown?" said a surprised senior Kim, adding after a moment, "I can see where he's coming from, and I understand that. But I think we're going to go into this competition just trying to improve and just have fun in front of our crowd again. I'm so excited," she said.
Power of Pink meet
No. 3 Utah (1-1) vs.2 comments on this story
No. 25 Washington (3-1)
Tonight, 7 p.m.
Note: To promote breast-cancer awareness, anyone wearing pink gets a free general-admission ticket.