The passion from the staff is there. We want to continue to keep Utah at the highest level and we are willing to work for it. —Utah co-head coach Tom Farden
SALT LAKE CITY — For the University of Utah gymnastics team, NCAA titles have grown elusive.
Once considered the preeminent collegiate gymnastics program in the country, and rightfully so with 11 national titles (10 NCAA) to its credit, the Red Rocks are seeking their first title since 1995.
During that drought, UCLA (7), Georgia (7), Alabama (4), Florida (3) and Oklahoma (3) have all been crowned champion multiple times.
In the meantime, the Red Rocks have had their ups and downs.
Since '95, Utah has finished runner-up five times, but has also finished as low as ninth. The last five years in particular have been somewhat underwhelming — at least by Utah standards.
Take away the Red Rocks' second-place finish in 2015, and Utah has averaged a seventh-place finish over the last five seasons.
This year, after finishing second at the Pac-12 Championships and winning the NCAA regional held in Salt Lake City, the Red Rocks finished fifth on the national stage.
All of which begs the question, where does the program go from here?
“The passion from the staff is there,” said co-head coach Tom Farden. “We want to continue to keep Utah at the highest level and we are willing to work for it.”
At the same time, the talent level in college gymnastics continues to rise.
Gymnasts like Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma), Kyla Ross (UCLA), Madison Kocian (UCLA), Peng Peng Lee (UCLA), Alex McMurtry (Florida), Elizabeth Price (Stanford) and of course, MyKayla Skinner (Utah), joined the collegiate ranks.
“The talent is unbelievable in the NCAA,” said Farden. “All of the gymnasts at the top are incredible world-class gymnasts. It is so exciting to see that level of gymnastics in the NCAA.”
While tougher competition has affected the Red Rocks' fortunes, nothing has had a greater impact on the Red Rocks' success, or lack thereof, than injuries.
“Many people on the outside may or may not know, but we’ve had some injuries and some early departures from some kids the last few years,” said Farden. “Last year, we got to the Super Six with seven kids; this year, we got here with eight.”
While every team has its share of injuries, Utah has been hit particularly hard.
The Red Rocks lost four seniors, including standout Georgia Dabritz, after the 2015 season. That alone could have been overcome — teams do that sort of thing every year — but Utah also dealt with additional blows that included Maddy Stover’s early onset of rheumatoid arthritis and Kari Lee’s Achilles tendon tear in 2016.
Another setback occurred when freshman Kim Tessen was forced to miss the season with her own Achilles tendon tear, while Lee suffered another setback, this time a high ankle sprain.
Even this year, free of any major season-ending injuries, was painful.
Shannon McNatt, who started the season in the beam rotation, was undone by an early injury.
Tessen, who aside from Skinner had been the Red Rocks’ best performer on uneven bars and vault, hurt her shoulder midway through the campaign and was never the same.
Freshman Alexia Burch injured her knee, after having earned a spot in the beam rotation, and Lee tweaked her ankle multiple times (by the end of the year she reluctantly admitted that it ached and would need offseason work).
But the Red Rocks are not ones to make excuses — Farden remarked “coulda, shoulda, woulda” when asked about the difficulties the program has faced — and following the Super Six he remained and remains optimistic about Utah’s future.
“I am really proud of our staff, how they’ve managed the kids,” said Farden. “We aren’t going to have any wholesale changes. We are recruiting well. We feel we are recruiting really well, and we are excited about the future.”
That mindset is shared by the gymnasts, as well.
“I know we have a long ways to go, but I think we are moving along really well,” said Skinner. “Especially with the future girls that are coming in, it will be really fun to see what they can bring to this team. We are going to work even harder than we did this year, and it will be fun to be here two more years.”
Hopefully, for Utah gymnastics, that fun will include a national title. If not, there will be some more work to do.