For the first time, former Olympic gymnast Melissa Marlowe stood before the balance beam last Sunday at the University of Oklahoma and smiled a salute to the judges - and meant it.
"I wasn't shaking. It's the first time I've ever not been shaking," says the Lady Ute freshman. "It was the first time I could smile at the judges when I salute and not be scared to death."The result was impressive, even if Ute Coach Greg Marsden and Marlowe admit the judges were overly enthusiastic in scoring for the entire Utah vs. Oklahoma meet that ended up a 190.70-190.55 Sooner win.
Utah travels to Arizona State Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for its second road meet.
Marlowe, with only about five weeks of training to her new college career after she took off three post-Olympic months, tied for the all-around title at Oklahoma with a 38.60 score, third-best in Ute history and the only one of the top 11 Utah scores to have ever been recorded on the road.
A relaxed Marlowe scored 9.8 on balance beam, her least-favorite event, tying the school record set by Megan Marsden in 1984. It was the only 9.8 in any event to have ever been scored by a Ute on the road.
Marlowe and Greg Marsden both say she was actually better in vaulting and floor exercise two weeks ago when she totaled 38.40 at home in a meet against defending NCAA champion Alabama, but both agree her balance beam act was better at Oklahoma and that there's more to come from the native Salt Laker.
"I was the calmest I've ever been. It was wonderful," says Marlowe, whose elite/Olympic career was inconsistent because of anxiety.
"I don't know what happened to change my frame of mind," says Marlowe, who says she hasn't been nervous about other events since the season opener, "but I really think it was that first meet with the team support. It's not like I'm out there alone. There were nine of us, and when it was my turn, they watched me, and when it was Hilarie's turn, they watched Hilarie (senior Portell).
"I seriously think it's the whole team attitude here," Marlowe says. "It's so strong, it made the difference."
Marsden says he may have underestimated how much she could do because she got such a late start - most college gymnasts begin training in September. Because she was so good before, he says, she can do routines that start at full value according to college rules, which are more lenient than those of international competition and which reward a clean performance as much as a spectacular one.
Marlowe's strength, says Marsden, is perfect line and a clean style that is tailor-made for college. At the beginning of the season, he wouldn't have expected her to progress to a 38.80-39.0 scoring range by the time nationals roll around in April. Now, he says, "Maybe I was naive to think she'd not be able to do that."
Marlowe doesn't know if she'll hit 39.0 - only Oklahoma's Kelly Garrison-Steves, Marlowe's Olympic teammate last summer, has ever done that - but she says she should be able to reach a performance she would personally consider 39.0 caliber once she's able to put in all the skills she knows she can do. The scoring, as it was Sunday, is up to the judges, and gymnasts have only their personal feelings to really tell them how well they did.
For Marlowe, the switch from international competition to college has been a pleasant surprise. She left high school in the middle of her senior year and petitioned her way with the NCAA onto the Utah team after qualifying academically. She misses friends at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's and teammates at Rocky Mountain Gymnastics in Murray, but she's found new, older friends who've helped her mature.
Marsden says it may have actually been to Marlowe's benefit to come in without training because she had to catch up, and that made it easier for the other gymnasts to accept suddenly having a major star in their midst. In that first meet, he said, everyone knew Marlowe wasn't ready, but because of injuries to three key team members, she put aside her own fears of not looking good for her hometown college debut to go all-around to help the team. It was a unifying effort that the whole team could appreciate, Marsden says.
Marlowe is thrilled to have a team. She experienced the feeling only once before, in the 1987 Pan Am Games, and likes having a "support group of eight other people there to help me and that I can help. It's amazing how much easier it is," she says.
Another major difference is that the elite gymnasts go months between meets. They start at their highest level and compete the same routines all season. In college, there are meets every week, and a gymnast can gradually add tricks once they're comfortable with them. "You can be consistent and not say, `Oh, that's it; where do I go from here?' " Marlowe says. "It's not monotonous. It's constantly getting harder."
Because of those things, Marlowe, the Olympian, is a happy, challenged gymnast, relaxed, for the first time.
"There's an observable difference every week in practice," Marsden says.
"The thing that most pleases me," says Marlowe, "is how I view competitions. I used to dread meets sometimes; now I can't wait to compete."