By the time most team athletes become college seniors, they like to think of themselves as experienced leaders who can show their club the way to a good season.
Ute gymnasts Nina Kim and Kristina Baskett took that thought a few steps beyond. They actually prepared themselves to lead.
They hatched a master plan shortly after the Utes came so close to winning the 2008 NCAA Championships at Georgia. They were second by .325 to the Gym Dogs, the closest NCAA finals margin since .325 separated Alabama and second-place Georgia at Alabama in 2002.
Remembers Baskett, "We were like, 'We're so close. We can do it.' So just right off the bat, we were like, 'Let's do it now. Let's start in the summer, training in the summer and getting physically ready." I think it started right after nationals when we were so close."
Adds Kim, "We kind of tried to make a path for us and the girls — I don't know — to set each other up the best we could, to be the best people that we could, on the team and off the team, helping each other."
As underclassmen, they had seen how leadership had weighed on some seniors, and they'd seen how some team leaders did things well. They tried to build on things they thought were helpful and avoid pitfalls they saw others go through — sad that they went through them but grateful for having their eyes opened to it, said Kim.
Baskett and Kim add that their teammates have the desire to win and stick together, and that made their jobs easy as the Utes sped through the season.
Utah is ranked No. 2 in the NCAA and has a 10-1 record as it goes into tonight's final home meet — Senior Night for Kim and Baskett — against fifth-ranked Florida (6-3) in the Huntsman Center tonight at 7.
Utah has averaged 13,616 in attendance this season, and if it draws 10,910 or more tonight for the last time Kim and Baskett will perform on the Huntsman floor, the school will break its own 16-year-old NCAA record average of 13,164.
Kim's close friend, Nastia Liukin — the 2008 Olympic all-around champion — is expected to be in attendance tonight. Kim went to the Beijing Olympics last summer to support Liukin.
Utah may be without Daria Bijak on several events. The all-arounder came up with a sore knee Thursday and practiced little, and she may do only bars and beam tonight. Additionally, junior Beth Rizzo underwent arthroscopic surgery Thursday to remove bone chips and deal with scar tissue in her sprained ankle that has kept her out all season. The ankle was not progressing enough for her to train routines, so Rizzo opted for the season-ending surgery.
Because the opponent tonight is the Gators, major players at nationals the last six years, Baskett and Kim must be extra focused tonight on what will undoubtedly be an emotional evening.
"I've been through it before with other girls (on their Senior Nights)," said Baskett, certain she will cry. "I've cried for other girls, so I know kind of like the drill. But once I get there with the coaches and my parents and the fans, it will be so overwhelming that I won't be able to help it.
"But I want it to be like a fun night and a celebration — not like a sad thing."
Kim figures it's good to have a name-brand opponent for her home finale.
"At the beginning of the year, I was like, 'Why do we get Florida on Senior Night? We usually have BYU,' " Kim said. "And now that the season has gone on, I think it will be more fun, and it will distract any feelings because we'll have to do our job."
She confessed, "I'm dreading the part I have to walk out" onto the floor prior to the meet and be introduced with her mother and sister.
Baskett and Kim, Utah's two top all-arounders, have done a remarkable job guiding the team following the exit of Ashley Postell, the NCAA's only 20-time All-American.
"They didn't just show up at the beginning of the year (like), 'We're seniors. We're the leaders,' " said coach Greg Marsden.
"They really got together and put some thought into it, how they wanted to approach it, some things they wanted to do, and had methods in place as to how they were going to work through some of those things."
This pair stands out for a man who's coached the Utes for 34 years.
"Not everybody is willing to put in the time and the energy to try to make sure that happens," Marsden said. "Everybody wants it. Not everybody is willing to think about it and plan for it and do things to make sure."4 comments on this story
That preparation made Kim and Baskett better gymnasts. "If you're asking other people to do things, you certainly have to be doing them yourself, so I think it's helped them focus as well," said Marsden.
"We were just really excited about the opportunity, and why not take advantage of it?" said Baskett, who hopes the work she and Kim have done will pay off even after they're gone.
"Hopefully it rubbed off on some of the other girls, too, and they'll be able to take some things that we've done that they've liked and continue it in the next couple of years," she said.