SALT LAKE CITY — In 1964, the population of Cedar Falls, Iowa, fell somewhere between 21,000 and 22,000 people.
Utah gymnastics didn’t exist, nor did the Jon M. Huntsman Center, with its now regular 15,000-plus diehard Red Rocks fans not even a dream within a dream.
It is fairly safe to say that no one in that northeastern Iowa city would have believed that one of their own would go on to become one of the most influential sports figures in the state of Utah, or in women’s college gymnastics nationwide.
And yet, then 2-year-old Megan McCunniff, a resident of Cedar Falls — who was just starting her gymnastics career as a toddler in 1964 — did just that.
It was a career that ultimately lasted 55 years, 39 of which were spent at the University of Utah.
It included four seasons as a collegiate gymnast, years in which McCunniff staked her claim as the best gymnast of her era.
Those years were followed by 35 more, all of which were spent with McCunniff — now known by her married name of Megan Marsden — as an integral part of the Utes’ coaching staff, either as an assistant, associate head coach or co-head coach.
It was a career that came to an end Monday, April 22, when she announced her retirement.
“I cannot express how lucky I have been to spend all these years at the University of Utah, competing alongside and coaching so many talented, strong, smart, amazing young women,” Marsden said. “To participate in multiple national championships as both an athlete and a coach at your alma mater is a thrill, but certainly the best part of my time here is the wonderful family of women we brought together at Utah who will always be in my life.”
The news brought with it a host of responses from fans and peers, along with current and former Utah gymnasts, all of whom praised Marsden for, well, being her.
It was enough that she joked to her husband Greg, who subsequently shared it for the world over Twitter, that retirement was like death in way: You get lots of flowers and lots of nice things said about you, but the only difference is you didn’t have to die.
Joke as she did, the time had come for her to step away.
“It was something I had been coming to for a while. I really want to spend more time with my husband,” Marsden said. “I have a grandbaby on the way and I didn’t want to keep going for a long time while my husband was retired. I wanted to enjoy retirement with him.”
In a perfect world she would have retired four years earlier, with Greg.
“I would have liked to have been done with him because it was kind of a life’s work together,” she said. “To go off into the sunset together would have been perfect.”
Instead, she stayed on four additional years to help the program transition from its founder to now head coach Tom Farden.
“We wanted to keep the Marsden name involved with the program for a little longer,” she said. “We thought it could be helpful in the transition. Tom didn’t really need me, even though he doesn’t think that. It was nice to do it together, but it just started to feel like the right time.”
Walking away proved anything but easy, however.
Marsden came to the decision that this would be her last year at Utah ahead of the competitive season, which meant for more than four months she kept her designs a secret from all but a select few in the administration and Farden.
As it turns out, secret-keeping is not one of Marsden’s strengths.
“I am as honest as a good’s day work and I am not good at keeping secrets or playing games, so I did not enjoy that,” she said. “But it was so important to me to not have the team know until they were done competing.”
Telling her gymnasts proved even more difficult.
Marsden didn’t want her girls to imagine themselves at all responsible for her decision, on the back of a postseason that didn’t live up to the gymnasts’ own expectations.
“That was the most difficult part of all. I wanted to be sure that I said the right things,” she said. “Our national championship performance wasn’t exactly what we had hoped it would be, and on some level they were still hurt by their finish. I wanted them to understand that nothing they had done was involved in my decision.”
Sitting in her office the day after her announcement, it was clear that her gymnasts were the reason she coached three and a half decades.
They were the daughters she never had, and with a lifetime's worth of memories, it was impossible for her to pinpoint favorites.
Those that stood out were fleeting and it was moments away from gymnastics that she loved the most, like watching the children of former Red Rocks bounce around the Dumke Center in the downtime of the summer, or sitting in her office with an athlete and helping them through whatever it was that life had thrown at them.
Grooming young women for a life removed from the sport that defined them was what Marsden lived for.
“We are lucky,” she said. “Most of them came to us with a really good foundation, their parents did that, and we get to put on the finishing touches.”
If anyone prepared her for a life after gymnastics, it was unnecessary. She is in no way worried about what life without gymnastics might entail, mostly because she cannot fathom her life without it.
“Gymnastics will always be a part of my life,” Marsden said. “I don’t see it going away.”2 comments on this story
That is why she did cartwheels, at 57, in an empty nail salon just a few months ago, at the behest of a young girl who was contemplating her own gymnastics career.
It is why she is open to serving as an ambassador to the Utah Athletics Department whenever and wherever they might need her.
It is why she and Greg have continued to talk all things gymnastics, even as they’ve distanced themselves from the sport.
After 55 years, gymnastics isn’t going anywhere, even if Marsden is.
“At 57, I am doing a cartwheel in a nail salon,” she said with a laugh. “I am pretty sure gymnastics will be with me for a lifetime.”