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Robert Laberge, Getty Images
Ute gymnast Nina Kim, shown at the 2004 U.S. championships, is making an impact on the program in her first year.

University of Utah gymnast Nina Kim was born in the United States, but her parents emigrated from Korea, and they lived in a part of Houston where little English was spoken.

When she ventured to school, Kim was shy, not knowing the language well and too afraid to ask teachers for help.

But she made a few friends, and one attended a gymnastics class that showed Kim how to cartwheel. Kim's mother, Sanya Kim, a high school gymnast in Korea, saw that her daughter liked it and put her and her 2-year-old sister into a class.

"I liked it from the beginning. I loved it," said Kim, a highly prized freshman who could go all-around for the first time in a home meet tonight when second-ranked Utah hosts unranked Utah State and Southern Utah in the Huntsman Center at 7.

She might only do two events, or she might be out altogether, depending upon her health. She was ill Thursday and did not practice.

"I think gymnastics kind of helped me come out of my shell and be more outgoing," said Kim, who speaks English like most American teenagers, with no accent and lots of enthusiasm.

In Utah's first two meets, at UCLA and at Washington, Kim was an all-arounder, beginning her collegiate career with 38.625 despite a fall and 9.225 score on floor. In the second meet, she fell twice on floor and scored 37.95. For last week's first home meet, she was held to exhibition on floor as she tried out a different final tumbling pass, which she hit.

Coach Greg Marsden believes Kim's confidence in the event is back and, perhaps depending on injuries to Nicolle Ford (wrist) and Gritt Hofmann (ankle sprain), was planning to possibly use Kim all-around Friday, depending upon her health. He said he would not push her this early in the season. He has no trepidation in using her if she is well after she fixed her floor routine.

"It totally helped me a lot, my confidence, making that floor routine this past weekend," said Kim. "I hope that I showed Greg that I could do it, and maybe if he feels that I can be in the all-around lineup, he'll put me in. If not, we have so many good all-arounders."

The problem with the old routine was that she entered her first and last passes in the same way. "I'd kind of get confused. I (had) to think more, and I kind of (held) back, and I (didn't) get enough bounce to make it through," she said. So a front handspring front full layout was changed to a roundoff back handspring double full with an upgrade to a 'D' level 2 1/2 in the offing when her endurance improves.

Kim — a four-year member of the U.S. national team who moved to Dallas at age 15 to train at the prestigious World Olympic Gymnastics Academy with 2004 Olympic all-around champion Carly Patterson, 2005 world champion Nastia Liukin and several other top-flight women — did not make the Olympic team and eventually suffered burnout.

She considered quitting the sport. "Yes, it crossed my mind a few times, but I couldn't see myself living without it, and college seemed so much fun, so I just pulled through," she said.

She took last year off from competition. She trained except for a few months last summer, when she got out of gymnastics shape, though she continued to eat properly.

As soon as she got to the U., the burnout flamed out. "Being in a different atmosphere and seeing all the girls and the coaching supporting me, I knew that I could love the sport just like I did in the beginning, so that's how I got back," Kim said.

Last week's home meet in front of 12,000-plus fans let her know her comeback was right. "The fans. I can't explain the feeling. It's so awesome. It's so exciting. I just can't wait for the next home meet." She was so overwhelmed that as she was introduced and had to run onto the floor alone, "I was scared I was going to trip on my face, but it was fun. I can't believe so many people come to watch our gymnastics."

She didn't trip. She didn't fall at the end. And Marsden says Kim could eventually put herself into the same class as Missy Marlowe, who also came back from severe burnout following the 1988 Seoul Olympics to set most of Utah's school records.

If Kim gets to that level, maybe she can win some arguments with her sister, now 15.

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When they were first in that kids gym class, "My coaches told me and my mom that my sister was the talented one and should go on, but being the younger one, she wanted to do a lot of other stuff," said Kim, who persevered alone while Jenny pursued honors classes in school and played piano and other instruments in the school band — "Things I can't do," says Kim.

They're best friends, but they have their egos. "The other day she was like, 'You don't understand how hard band is, walking out in the sun, marching all day long' " Kim said. "I was like, 'Excuse me?' And she's like, 'It might be a little harder than gymnastics.' I was like, 'Oh, no.'

"So we kind of argued about that — but I was the big sister, and I was like, 'OK, band is harder.'

"Not really!" Kim said.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com