Tom Smart, Deseret News
LOS ANGELES — The Utah gymnastics team heads into this weekend’s NCAA National Championships with its lowest seed ever.
But the No. 10 seeded Utes don’t mind being underdogs. In fact, this year’s team prefers feeling like long shots.
“We’re definitely coming in as the underdogs because we have no expectations, nothing to lose,” said Skyline High graduate and junior Mary Beth Lofgren. “That’s how we went into the Florida meet, and it obviously worked. I think if we have fun, we’ll do well. We’re at our best when we’re having fun.”
The Utes outperformed No. 1 seeded Florida in their last home meet in a competition in which no gymnast scored lower than a 9.8. Before that meet, Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden said her husband and fellow coach Greg had the feeling of taking on Goliath.
“He kind of gave them permission to not worry about winning that meet,” said Megan Marsden. “The next thing you know, from what I could tell, the girls were flipping and twisting exactly like we watch them do everyday here in training. Which is what we’ve been working for with this group of girls.”
The ability to do in competition what they are doing in training sessions has been a challenge. It has caused frustration, but it has also provided motivation to a young but determined group. Their toughest battles come from their own minds.
“It’s hard for them when there is a lot of expectation,” said Marsden. “They try to be perfect, and that usually doesn’t work in their favor. Then they have little mistakes that we aren’t used to seeing.”
If the gymnasts can compete as if they have nothing to lose, instead of the only program able to boast that they’ve earned 38 straight NCAA championship appearances, they may surprise even themselves.
But even if the Utes have a Florida-like meet in which they exceeded their best team score of the season on every event except vault, it may not mean a national title. In fact, it may not even mean a berth into Saturday’s Super Six.
“We might hit all of our stuff and not move on,” said Marsden. ”This group we’re in is so talented.”
While the Utes are 0-3 against teams in its session, the program has an all-time winning record against every team in the championships — except Alabama.
This year’s team feels the weight of tradition, even as the Utes try to put their own stamp on the storied program.
“They didn’t earn it, but they carry that burden of trying to continue what the women before them have done,” Marsden said of the 38-straight championship appearances.
No one understands that tradition more than the local gymnasts who grew up dreaming of being part of the Red Rocks.
“It’s been fun to watch the streak build and build over the years,” said Lofgren. I think we all feel that pressure, but at the same time, it’s something we take pride in. You try to make the most out of it and have fun with it. You can doubt yourself, but that doesn’t help at all. We just go into every meet with the feeling that there is nothing to lose.”
Knowing that their best may not be enough doesn’t discourage the gymnasts. It motivates them. All of the coaches involved in this weekend’s championship acknowledged the parity and depth of talent across the country. A number of factors have contributed to increased talent and more parity in college gymnastics.
First, Marsden said the number of quality coaches has increased and they’re taking their talents to a lot of universities, not just staying at historically strong programs.
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