Humble beginnings shape who you are. I’ve lived a life of gratitude. —Tom Farden
SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah gymnastics co-head coach Tom Farden says he’s lucky to work for what he considers “the crown jewel of college gymnastics.” That might be true, considering Utah has been to the nationals 41 consecutive years, including this week’s event in Fort Worth, Texas.
He also understands the expectations.
“As a coach,” he says, “my goal is always to win the national championship.”
It’s true Utah hasn’t won a title since 1995, but he intends to add this year’s team to history. That’s entirely appropriate because, in a sense, Farden has no history of his own.
When a coach starts out as a nobody — literally and figuratively — challenges like winning championships aren’t insurmountable.
Farden’s name is just now making its way into public consciousness. He has been an assistant at Utah for five years. After Ute gymnastics founder Greg Marsden announced his retirement, last spring, Farden was introduced as co-coach. The thinking was that the transition would be seamless. He knew the athletes, the system, the history.
Best of all, he knew himself.
That’s not always an easy discovery.
Born in Incheon, South Korea, in 1974, on a specific day nobody knows, he was left in a basket at the steps of the city hall. A note pinned to his diapers said, “This is my son, Man-Ki Park. I can no longer take care of him.”
There was no documentation or address, and certainly no variety pack of baby booties, talcum and wipes. He was placed in an orphanage and assigned an arbitrary birthdate.
When he was (approximately) a year old, Farden was selected from an adoption catalog by Gordon and Marilyn Farden, of Dayton, Minnesota. Back then, adopting a Korean child was like shopping at L.L. Bean for a pair of jeans. Farden’s adoptive parents had originally selected a different child, but he died before arrangements were completed. Korean officials referred the Fardens back to the catalog so they could choose again.
“That,” Farden says, “was me.”
He has no idea who his birth parents are. Besides that, the orphanage burned down, destroying any other records. He remembers nothing of his infancy.
Farden was raised happily in a “very middle-class home,” 29 miles from Minneapolis. His father worked at a power station and his mother raised five children.
“We had everything we needed but not everything we wanted,” he says.
On second thought, maybe he did.
He had a family, love and a chance at success.
“Humble beginnings shape who you are,” he says. “I’ve lived a life of gratitude.”
His only infancy photo is the one from the adoption catalog. So it’s only natural that when working with college gymnasts, Farden sometimes laughs. Many of his athletes grew up in upscale neighborhoods and trained at elite academies.
“Your problems — your phone screen broke, the lady didn’t do your nails right — those are First World problems,” he tells them.
Beating three-time defending champion Florida this week?
First World all the way.
Farden was coaching at Southeast Missouri State in 2006 when he got a call from Marsden. He had been working on some national gymnastics proposals and Marsden liked his approach. They talked extensively on occasion and over the years stayed in touch. Farden’s success at SEMO — which included two NCAA Regional appearances — was enough that he landed an assistant’s job at Arkansas, where he worked for a year.
Throughout, Marsden periodically plumbed Farden’s interest in coming to Utah. Turns out it was high.
“He didn’t have to sell it,” Farden says. “This is a dream job.”
With dream opportunities.
Last April the Utes were leading in the national tournament with one Florida bar routine left. They lost by 5/100ths of a point.
“We thought we did it, and for 42 seconds we did,” Farden says.
College gymnastics, he points out, are appealing partly because they don’t lead to professional careers.
“The kids know when it’s done, it’s done,” he says.
Later they can go on with First World things like finding careers in medicine, physical therapy, coaching, etc. In other words, they can make names for themselves. More than most people, Farden knows how much that means.
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