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Associated Press
Utah center Luke Nevill puts up a shot over Air Force forward Grant Parker during the first half at Air Force Academy, Colo, Wednesday.

Junior Daria Bijak, who competed for Germany, wasn't the only University of Utah gymnast at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Senior Nina Kim was there as well.

"Well, I didn't compete, obviously," said Kim at practice this week.

She was asked to come to the Olympics by one of her best friends, Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin, with whom she trained at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) in Texas prior to coming to Utah.

Kim spent most of her time in China last summer seeing the sights and watching the gymnastics competition with Nastia's mother, Anna, while Nastia and her father/coach/former Olympic all-around champion, Valeri, were on the competition floor winning medals.

The Liukins "kind of took me under the wing and helped me out when I was in Dallas," Kim said. "I've had all these great people in my life. I'm really close with her parents and Nastia."

Kim said she saved up some money and got help from her parents to make the trip to be with her friend in China.

Nastia returned the favor for Kim recently, visiting with her at the U. after Christmas.

Kim watched Liukin develop into a world-beater despite injuries and being behind world all-around champion and Olympic trials winner Shawn Johnson.

So, "To see her win (the gold), it inspired me," said Kim. "I can't explain it, but it brings tears to my eyes."

That was one of two offseason developments that helped make Kim into a leader for the Utes, both on the apparatus and off.

In Utah's season-opener last Friday against UCLA in the Huntsman Center — a 196.175-196.075 Ute victory — Kim was, for three events, locked in a race with fellow senior Kristina Baskett for the all-around title.

Kim opened the meet with a career-best 9.95 vault that has her ranked No. 1 in the country this week, and she added a 9.85 bars and hit a 9.875 as Utah's final competitor on beam — the position that has been held for the last four years by 2002 World Champion Ashley Postell, now out of eligibility.

"It was fun. It was still scary," Kim said of taking that No. 6 spot, reserved for the best on the team in that event.

Kim and Baskett each made mental errors on the final event, floor exercise, and had falls that allowed junior Jamie Deetscreek to win the all-around, but the Utes won the team event.

Kim said she just needs proper focus on floor. "The coaches and I have talked about it, and just mentally that I need to prepare stronger," she said. That means she needs to visualize herself in the meet during practices and then carry that over.

Coach Greg Marsden isn't worried. He sees Kim as almost a whole new person, confident and mature.

The experience with Liukin helped, and so did last summer's training, when many of the Utes stayed in town to work out.

"This summer, the group that was here kind of changed and inspired me to want to be the best that I could this last season. Our whole team turned a leaf," said Kim, sensing more motivation and "a little more fire" from everyone.

"I'm so much happier. I'm happy all the time. I love where I am. I love the people around me, and for me, helping others helps me. The coaches and my teammates just give me so much that I want to give that much more back."

Team sports psychologist Dr. Keith Henschen said he has talked with Kim about leading by simply relaxing and being herself instead of trying, and that seems to be what's happening.

As for being the national leader on vault, she was surprised, but she has also been working at it.

"Greg and I talked over how I could make my vaults better because I've been stuck in the 9.85s, 9.875s, and it's the repulsion — getting higher because I get great distance," she said.

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The added height, and a good setup by those who vaulted ahead of her, helped Kim score well despite the smallest of dismount hops.

She's preparing an upgrade to a Yurchenko full-and-a-half, the vault Baskett does, hoping to do it by mid-season.

"I love vaulting," said Kim, who seems to love everything right now, "because it's so short. You get nervous, but then you're done in what, 10 seconds? So yes, I enjoy vault very much."

Utah, ranked No. 2, travels to three-time defending national champion Georgia for a Monday afternoon meet before hosting Washington on Friday, Jan. 23.