Utah's senior gymnastics class, the biggest senior class coach Greg Marsden's ever had, is the most diverse group the gym Utes have had, too, from their international backgrounds to their future fields of endeavor.
The senior Utes two Americans plus a German, Hungarian and South African compete for the last time in this state Friday night in the Huntsman Center at 7 when No. 23 BYU visits the No. 2-ranked U.
For many reasons, from injuries to learning the English language and culture, this senior class didn't rewrite the record book but has had a unique impact.
"They've never really been the stars of the team, but they've been the core of the team," said Marsden.
"It's been a good, solid group that have been role players. People who would step up and do whatever you ask of them, accept their roles never being satisfied necessarily, but they'll accept it and be positive and do what they can to help the team. And then work to have an opportunity to do more."
Certainly Gritt Hofmann personifies that. She thought she had graduated last spring, but the NCAA granted her an extra season last summer due to earlier medical hardships. The Berliner could have gone on with her life, but she came back with renewed purpose and continued to grow as a gymnast at age 25.
"We would not be as competitive as we are after the loss of Rachel (Tidd to a career-ending back injury) had Gritt not been able to come back or not wanted to come back," Marsden said. "No question this has been her best year with us."
Hofmann, limited by shoulder problems, surprised herself by learning new skills and becoming a regular in three events instead of the one or two she'd done most of her first four years. "I think, yeah, I accomplished what I wanted, and it's been a great experience," said the budding interior designer whose parents are coming from Germany for a second time for her second senior night.
Four seniors will have parents in the audience Friday, and Gabi Onodi's Hungarian club coaches will be here.
Kristen Riffanacht, co-captain for a rare second year, battled injuries her last two seasons. They were a "depressing setback, but I've tried to take advantage of this year as much as I could," said the resident of Connecticut who plans to follow in Dr. Keith Henschen's footsteps in sports psychology in graduate school after another year at the U.
""He definitely was my inspiration for wanting to do that, just being able to work with him a lot and get to know him better. He's been really helping me lay out my options as I go," Riffanacht said.
Riffanacht has been an all-arounder when circumstances permitted but is mainly been a beam and floor specialist in 2006 after a preseason ankle injury. "I do get to compete and participate on the team, but there's always stuff that I wish we could have done," she said.
Dominique D'Oliveira, who started with two freshman ankle surgeries, is coming off one of her best bars outings with a new dismount at Florida last week. "I had a lot more goals with my gymnastics, and for various reasons I feel like I didn't achieve what I wanted to," she said. "But I learned a really good life lesson and learned a lot about people and teamwork. I learned a lot more outside of gymnastics through gymnastics. In that respect, things came together at the end."
She learned she wanted to fly more than just release moves on bars. A friend took her up in a two-seater and let her have the controls for a minute, "and that's when I knew. I fell in love with it," she says. She'll stay at the U. another year, travel the U.S. a bit and then go home to Johannesburg and hope to get into South African Airlines' pilot school.
"That's my goal. It's really difficult to get into, but I think I have a good chance. I love to fly," D'Oliveira said.
Onodi, from Budapest, improved each of her last two seasons but was beset in 2006 by illness and injury and even the freak breaking of her handgrip in the first competitive bars routine of her collegiate life two weeks ago. She sprained an ankle last week and broke out in allergic rash to the medicine for it this week.
Even if she's polka-dotted in red blotches, she plans to show her Hungarian coaches what she's learned. "They are really important to me, and I wanted them to see my last meet. So this meet is more important to me than anything," she said. "I like gymnastics so much more than I did ever before. I wanted them to see how I do and be proud of me."
Like her classmates, Onodi has another year of college, then hopes for work in journalism or marketing in the U.S. or Hungary. "I really like writing, and I wish that writers would get paid more because then I would do it forever," she said.
Natalie Nicoloff, the future nutritionist from Hermitage, Pa., won't get to show off Friday for her parents and two sets of aunts and uncles. A solid leadoff performer on bars and beam, she tore up an elbow in practice Feb. 23, ending her career. It still hurts some but is getting better, though she has to be careful not to re-tear the ligament.
"It's a really big bummer this had to happen to me, and I really wish I could have finished this season out because I love doing gymnastics," Nicoloff said. "But I guess it is what it is, and you've got to deal with whatever comes your way.
"I'm still excited for the end of the season and hope everyone does well. I just try to help the girls out, pump them up as much as I can, do whatever I can to feel like I'm still a part of it."
Which, according to Marsden, is exactly what this senior class always does.
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