SALT LAKE CITY — For those fortunate enough to interview, interact and otherwise associate with the 2017-18 Utah gymnastics team, as well as those who read about those interactions, the Red Rocks’ defining traits have been readily apparent.
First and foremost they are an incredibly competitive group.
They want to win, they need to win, and they are not shy about showing it.
No Red Rock embraces the display of competitive fire more than senior Tiffani Lewis.
Her post-routine celebrations are practically legendary at this point, although MyKayla Skinner gives her a run for her money on occasion.
Interestingly enough, neither Lewis’ nor Skinner’s celebrations hold a candle to the one Kim Tessen unveiled at the Salt Lake City Regional.
After she nailed her vault, for which she earned a 9.900, the sophomore tore away from the apparatus faster than she ran toward it, all the while screaming in jubilation.
How she ran that fast without breathing no one will ever know.
In addition to their competitiveness, the Red Rocks are also kind.
They are there for their teammates, so much so that senior Maddy Stover has declared, on multiple occasions, that this Red Rocks team is the closest she has ever been on. They are more like a family.
They are also there for their fans. After every meet you can find them taking pictures and interacting with hordes of miniature gymnasts, some of whom may be future Red Rocks.
They are even nice to the press, which has earned them a special place in media heaven.
Above all else, however, the Red Rocks are and want to have fun.
After all, what is more fun than a perfect 10.0 by MaKenna Merrell-Giles, or a perfect floor routine by Skinner, no matter what the judges say.
You can throw routines by any Utah gymnast into that mix, including those by Lewis, Sydney Soloski and Kari Lee, as well as Stover.
Simply put, Utah gymnastics entertains.
The gymnasts are fun off the floor as well, often in ways that their fans are not privy to.
For instance, each Red Rock has an animal, bestowed upon them by trainers Katie Lorens and Sadie Sewell at the Pac-12 championships.
“We were trying to find something fun to do in the training room before the meet,” said freshman Lexi Burch. “Our trainers, Katie and Sadie, decided they were going to come up with a sort of charades for us and act out an animal that fit our personality.”
Lorens and Sewell picked a wide assortment of animals to represent each gymnast, odd ones at that.
“They started looking up the most ridiculous things, but they were spot on with our personalities,” said Burch.
Burch was a big horned sheep, Lewis a swan. Another Red Rock was a dolphin. Former Utah gymnast and current graduate assistant Bailey Rowe took the cake, however. Her animal was an Aye-Aye.
“It is some creepy bat looking thing,” said Burch.
An Aye-Aye is actually a rodent-like primate, native to the island of Madagascar, that sports an otherworldly middle finger and is rightfully considered a demon by the natives.
When they aren’t getting spirit animals, the Red Rocks find other ways to entertain themselves.
When Utah traveled to Los Angeles to take on rival UCLA, the gymnasts took a trip to Venice Beach. It was there that Missy Reinstadtler, Erika Muhaw, Soloski and Macey Roberts became mesmerized by a street performer.
“There was a performer on the boardwalk and he would pretend to stand super still,” said Reinstadtler. “There was music playing, and whenever someone would put money into his hat he would scream or start dancing, something crazy like that.”
The quartet enjoyed the show for a while, that is until the performer noticed them.
“At one point he went into the crowd and started dancing with somebody. Then he started to come towards us,” said Reinstadtler. “We all just sprinted away as fast as we could.”
Soloski probably wished she could have run away on another occasion, this time on the trip home from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I lost my drivers license at the airport coming home from Michigan,” Soloski said. “I have no idea where it went. I had it getting on the flight (going there), but when we were at the airport pulling out IDs it wasn’t there.”
She was forced to tear apart her belongings in search of the ID, and when that failed her, she and co-head coach Tom Farden resorted to begging.
“Tom and I had to beg the TSA people to let me on the flight back from Michigan,” said Soloski.
Evidently, it was a good thing her animal was not an Aye-Aye.
Farden is often the one responsible for getting the Red Rocks out of whatever trouble is caused by their fun and Utah gymnasts enjoy driving.
“Utah gymnastics does not have the best drivers,” said Merrell-Giles. “Within a span of a week and a half, Tiff rear-ended somebody, Kim rear-ended somebody, and Lexi hit someone in the parking lot.
“Tom had to go and fix all of their cars within a week of each other. Then, Kim got hit by a car. She wasn’t in a car this time, she was hit by a car. All of this happened in a week and a half.”
In an attempt to prevent another such week in the future, Farden created a list of five safety points about driving that each Red Rock was mandated to keep on their keychain.
Of course, none of them have the list anymore, nor do they remember what it contained.
“Mine ripped,” Merrell-Giles said sheepishly.
The list of fun stories goes on, like the time assistant coach Robert Ladanyi dressed up as Lewis for Halloween, tape and all, or when Farden found himself on the end of a few jokes, having rolled his ankle playing soccer with his son, whilst wearing his wife’s Uggs.
Then there was the instance when Lewis missed the team bus, after spending 20 minutes searching for an available U spot (designated for students) in the wonderland that is parking at the University of Utah.
“I drove around for like 20 minutes before I parked in an A spot,” said Lewis. “I was like ‘I’ll just take the $20 (fine)’. I ended up being late for the bus anyway.”
At the end of every meet, Skinner, almost without fail, tells the assembled media that what she and her teammates want out of competition is to have fun. When they have fun, they are relaxed and perform at their best.
No wonder they made it to the national championships.