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University of Utah
Katie Kivisto competes on the floor exercise for the Utes against UCLA.

Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden often challenges his athletes to make their poorest event their best during their years at the university.

Freshman Katie Kivisto pretty much did that before the season even started, making Utah's strong uneven bars lineup in what would have been considered a few months ago as an upset.

"When I came here, no one thought I would compete bars just because I had difficulties on the event," said Kivisto, "and I managed to clean them up, and I guess I kind of surprised everyone."

"It was one event that in the recruiting process seemed to kind of be a throw-away event for her," said Marsden. "It was the one event that probably most people who recruited Katie would have thought she probably won't compete for your team, but she's done a great job and Aki's done a great job at making that a very strong event for her now."

Aki is Aki Hummel, Marsden's bars coach since 1993. Prior to that, Hummel, a 1991 graduate of Florida Atlantic, worked at the American Twisters club in Boca Raton, Fla., where he coached Kivisto starting when she was age 4. "He really wasn't the reason I came here — but I'm glad he's here," said Kivisto, noting that because she and Hummel knew each other, he was careful to not violate NCAA rules by doing any recruiting when he went back to Florida to visit friends.

Kivisto, a five-year elite and one-year member of the U.S. national team, was one of those youngsters everyone has an eye on for recruiting, said Marsden, but she seriously considered only Michigan, Georgia and Utah, and, "After I'd gone and visited all of them, I liked Utah better. I just liked it, a gut feeling I guess."

Second-ranked, 3-0 Utah hosts third-ranked, 5-0 Michigan Friday at 7 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.

Kivisto should again be in Utah's bars lineup and will probably be an alternate on balance beam and floor.

"We changed the composition of her routine," Marsden said of how Kivisto quickly joined the bars lineup. "She's really worked hard on her execution. It's been a pleasant surprise. We just found the things that she could do well."

Part of it has to do, Marsden said, with Hummel's knowledge of how to coach the outspoken youngster who has always wanted to be a lawyer like her father and prides herself on being able to win arguments, though she says she hasn't had any yet with Utah's coaches.

Beam is her favorite event, and she does a move unique enough to have been named the "Kivisto" because she was the first to complete it at a Level10 national championships.

She's still trying to crack Utah's very deep beam lineup and needs to show Marsden more consistency in practice to do so. She developed the skill, a flip without using her feet, while recovering from a broken foot. "I really couldn't do anything else that involved feet, so I would just go to beam and work for hours on it," she said.

At the same time, a coach in her club told her the move would be impossible. "So after that, we're like, 'We're getting it,' " she said. "I was one of those kids with no fear, to the point of, like, stupidity. I would try anything in the gym."

Kivisto says she's "at least acquired a healthy sense of fear now. You can't be that reckless," and Marsden says she is learning to hone her routines.

"She was a real trickster," Marsden says. "She had a lot of difficulty, but she didn't always execute it extremely well. Now that the meets have started, I think it's apparent to her that she doesn't need another skill at this point. She needs to refine the skills she has."

Once Kivisto's other events gain consistency, her career could begin following the path of the former Ute to whom she's often compared in many ways, 11-time all-American Melissa Vituj, last year's co-captain and four-year fan favorite for her sparkling personality.

"People that have seen (Kivisto) have noted this — she's almost a Melissa Vituj personality," says Marsden. "She doesn't quite compete with the same degree of confidence Melissa did at this point, but I think she will when she gets a little more experience."

Like Kivisto, Vituj, a fellow 5-footer, came to Utah deficient on bars but, with Hummel's help, turned that into a 9.975 event by her senior season.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com