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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah's MaKenna Merrell-Giles scores a 9.875 on the balance beam during a meet against BYU at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.
I think she has come a long way, especially this year. She has gotten way more confident in her gymnastics. —Utah sophomore MyKayla Skinner

SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone familiar with Pleasant Grove knows about Discovery Park. Also known as Manila Park, it was built in 1996 as part of a massive community effort.

Since then, many a child and a fair amount of adults have enjoyed the park and its amenities, including the unique medieval wooden castle of a playground, tennis courts, pavilions and baseball fields.

It isn’t too much of a leap to believe that in the park's 22 years of existence, a few children have found a little inspiration there for their future athletic endeavors.

Not many people would have imagined, however, that one of those children would go on to be an elite gymnast for the University of Utah.

And while the 2018 season is understandably young, that is what MaKenna Merrell-Giles, whose childhood home neighbors Discovery Park, has become.

Through two meets, the three-time All-American and two-time All-Pac-12 Conference gymnast has managed to establish herself as one of the finest gymnasts in the country.

In the Red Rocks' (3-1) season-opener against BYU, Merrell-Giles won the floor event with a 9.925 and finished the night tied with teammate MyKayla Skinner for the all-around title, with a score of 39.475. That score tied Merrell-Giles’ best all-around score of her career and proved to be just the beginning.

This past Sunday, in Reno, Nevada, the junior tied her career highs on vault (9.90) and floor (9.95) and finished a close fourth place in the all-around competition, trailing just Skinner, UCLA star Kyla Ross and Stanford’s Elizabeth Price.

On the season, Merrell-Giles stands as the sixth-best all-around gymnast in the country, with an average score of 39.462 (by way of comparison, Skinner is ranked second in the nation with a 39.587 average). Merrell-Giles is ranked fourth on floor, 25th on bars and most importantly, is a vital part of the No. 2 Red Rocks.

“She has a very important role on the team,” said Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden.

According to Marsden, the skill level has always been there for Merrell-Giles, aided by consistent coaching throughout her life, courtesy of her mother.

The difference this season though, a difference that both Marsden and Skinner pointed out specifically, is an increase in confidence.

“MaKenna has grown up, grown mature and built confidence,” said Marsden. “I think it is beginning to show up in the way that she approaches competition, the way that she does her gymnastics now.”

“I think she has come a long way, especially this year,” added Skinner. “She has gotten way more confident in her gymnastics, and she has definitely proven that to the coaches.”

That confidence has spread into other areas of her life, including academics, much to the delight of Marsden.

“She is more confident in herself and I think (that is) partly because she is more confident in herself as a whole person,” said Marsden. “She has really come into herself academically and is feeling good about what she is doing there. When someone gets those things going, all of a sudden they blossom, and that is what I believe is happening with MaKenna.”

LIGHT ON THE BODY: While competing on podium at the Elevate the Stage quad meet was a new and/or uncertain experience for many of the Red Rocks, it was anything but for Skinner.

“It was nice to be back on podium again,” the sophomore said. “It’s light on the body and I love it.”

That fact certainly showed in her performance.

Skinner claimed the all-around title (39.700), and won on floor (9.975), vault (9.95) and bars (9.95). Throw in a 9.825 on beam, the only event she didn’t win, and Skinner once again proved worthy of the Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week award, to which she was named Tuesday for the record-tying ninth time in her collegiate career.

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