Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Sophomore Nicolle Ford, the Utes' top gymnast, has won 12 events, including two all-around titles.

At her gym club in Binghamton, N.Y., Nicolle Ford was the only international elite-status athlete around.

"I wasn't threatened by anyone else. I got away with everything. I never got yelled at," remembers Ford, now a sophomore on the No. 1-ranked University of Utah gymnastics team.

While she was an international elite for four years and the best in her club, she had good credentials but never completely reached her potential. She missed out on the U.S. Classic in her high-school senior year when she twisted an ankle 10 days before the Classic, a qualifier to the USA Championships.

Utah even sent her a rejection letter, thinking she wasn't interested after U. assistant coach Aki Hummel visited her gym. Her club coach ran into Ute coach Greg Marsden at a meet and told him she was interested, and the relationship was rekindled to the point that she never took another recruiting trip after visiting Utah.

Once here, though, recalls Marsden, Ford wasn't sure how she'd fit into the lineup with several gymnasts who had beaten her on the elite circuit. "I don't think she saw herself as one of the best," he said.

But when your nickname is "Queenie," because you were the royalty at your old gym, are you really going to take a back seat to anyone for long?

Ford certainly hasn't.

The increased competition in practices in the Ute gym, plus stern directions from Marsden, who doesn't let Ford skip vaulting practices, and Hummel, who made her do endless repetitions last year on bars, quickly had Ford succeeding as a freshman and improving this season. At first, it was "a shock," Ford said, but now she likes being pushed by teammates and coaches. "I need it," she said.

Ford and the Utes complete the 2005 regular season at BYU's Marriott Center Saturday night at 7 p.m. and then will host the NCAA North Central Regional at the Huntsman Center April 9 at 6 p.m. The NCAA Championships are at Auburn University April 21-23.

Last year, Ford won three events — bars and beam against Iowa and beam against Michigan. She was Utah's only two-time first-team All-American at the 2004 NCAAs and scored 39.525 in the all-around on team preliminaries night to finish seventh and help Utah qualify for the Super Six national finals.

"I like pressure situations, where I know I have to hit or else," Ford said, though she added that probably wasn't completely the case at the 2004 NCAAs. "I was inexperienced. I did it and didn't think about it."

This season, despite what she considers "a slow start," Ford has already won a dozen events including a couple of all-arounds, even though this team is better than 2004's.

She is ranked seventh in the NCAA in the all-around this week with a 39.440 Regional Qualifying Score (average of six meets, at least three on the road, with the high score tossed out). Teammate Ashley Postell (39.535) is ranked third, and Annabeth Eberle (39.47) is one place ahead of Ford, and the three have a friendly rivalry in the gym.

"I'm sure all three of us are the same way," Ford said. "We've all had our times. We're happy for each other when we're on top and help each other when we're not." There's no trash talking, but Ford admits to thinking in practices, "I'm going to do this better than you.

"I need that," she says.

Marsden said there are several on his team who hate to lose at anything, and Ford is among them. "It's the reason she's called 'Queenie.' "

In March alone, Ford has tied (39.625) and then improved (39.65) her career-best all-around and tied her career bests on vault (9.925) beam (9.95) and floor (9.925) and tied her season high on bars (9.925).

She's even won three meet vault titles, even though she's always been "terrified of vault. I can't even tell you why."

About winning three vaults this season she says, "I don't know where that came from," though she admits that, "When I hit vault, it's good. But I wouldn't say I quite enjoy it."

It was worse with the old vaulting horse apparatus. The new, wider vaulting table is a little easier on her nerves, but she still refuses to look at it before she vaults or even while she's on the runway. She concentrates on the beat board for her roundoff entry and doesn't see the table till she has to hit it. Once in the air, she's fine.

She used to opt out of vault practices in club. "Greg wouldn't let me do it here," she said, though she admits to still running through a lot of practice vaults.

"Just going to vault makes my hands get all sweaty. It's disgusting," Ford says, laughing at herself.

"Vault is getting better," says Marsden, who coaches that event and challenged Ford to make her weakness one of her better events. "The last month she's made progress."