Former Olympian Melissa Marlowe and the University of Utah gymnastics team got a Christmas present two days early. Sometime around 9:30 a.m. Friday, the NCAA granted Marlowe eligibility to become a Lady Ute in January, if she so chooses, and she says she does.

Because she is still in the middle of her senior year of high school, Marlowe had to get special eligibility to become a college gymnast, and that was granted Friday morning after her application had been turned down once by the NCAA as being incomplete.She has already been accepted by the U. as an early admission and is registered for 12 hours of classes but was waiting for the NCAA OK. Otherwise, she'd have completed her senior year at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's.

Until she begins classes at the U. on Jan. 4, she can still change her mind and attend another school and gym program because, with the early eligibility, she does not sign a letter of intent. Once she attends a class, Marsden can have contact with her. Until then, he can't say anything.

Marlowe says she is anxious.

"They just accepted it, so I'll start in January," she told the Deseret News Friday. "I told them, `Yes, I will come.' " She says she won't make an immediate contribution because she hasn't trained since the Olympics in September and has gained weight. She had planned to work out three times a week but never got to it, and she tried aerobics but didn't stick with that, either. "It was hard without a real structured time to do things," she says. "That's part of why I started getting so frustrated."

For about six weeks after the Olympics, Marlowe enjoyed being a civilian. "I loved it," she says. "Then I started getting bored. For a long time, I didn't want to go near a gym, but that wore off."

She says schoolwork was actually more difficult when she had idle time. "It was harder to get my homework done and harder to make myself do stuff.

"I needed the time off from gymnastics, no doubt about that. I was so burnt out. And I had fun in that amount of time, but I started to slowly miss it. I didn't have any goals and didn't have anything to work for."

She began investigating college programs. She took a recruiting trip to Stanford and planned on seeing UCLA, Oregon and maybe Utah State, but the Stanford trip made up her mind. She liked the academic qualities there but decided that if she were going to continue in gymnastics, she wanted to do it "at a gym where I could get better and not go downhill like a lot of college gymnasts do. Only a few programs in the country can do that, and Greg, by far, has the best one."

Utah combined gymnastics potential with the academics she wants because she is a good student. "I've always been interested in Utah," adds Marlowe, who started her gymnastics career when she was enrolled by her mother in one of Marsden'sSaturday morning kids' classes. She advanced to a Bountiful club, then joined Mark Lee's Rocky Mountain Gym in Murray, where she still works out.

Because of stringent requirements at Rowland Hall, she will finish high school credits of English and health at East and get her diploma from there. "It's going to be really hard to leave Rowland Hall because of everything they've done and all my friends there," she says. She talked told school officials if her leaving would hurt Rowland Hall, she'd stay and graduate and enroll at Utah in the fall. She was told to advance herself if she could.

The reason the NCAA had to make a special ruling on Marlowe is that those whomake the jump to college early must be in the top 20 percent academically, at their high school. Marlowe wasn't, but her petition reasoned that Rowland Hall is a specialized school and all its students would be atop of their classes if theyattended regular schools.

Though the American team placed fourth in the Olympics, narrowly missing a medal, Marlowe said the Olympics "as a whole was the neatest thing I've ever experienced. The trip itself was hard, as far as the gymnastics. There was a lot of tension and pressure.

"Everything we did, and everything anyone else did, was closely scrutinized by other countries. There was pressure from coaches, other countries, even judges, and everything had to be perfect or they started to get upset or worried about it," she says, adding that it was what she expected.

The American team coaching turmoil, so evident during the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City in August - when Marlowe had her best meet ever to come from behind and qualify for the team - seemed to abate at the Olympics. "As gymnasts, we all got along," Marlowe recalls, "and the coaches handled themselves OK in the gym and between each other. They really didn't coach together; we had our own coaches until the meet."