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CAUDLE PICKS TOUGHER ROAD TO FULFILL GYMNASTICS GOAL

When Megan Caudle was a young club gymnast, the advice she got for working the uneven bars was: "Get up there and figure out a way that works for you." No suggestion. No technique. Just do it.

She knew she was doing it wrong because it scared her. But she kept doing it. She was more afraid of the coach's wrath. "I would do anything. I was crazy. I would land on my head not to get yelled at," Caudle says, reliving old nightmares that she is only now beginning to put to bed as she completes her junior year with Utah's gym team.Caudle is a crucial member of the Ute squad that tries to defend its '94 NCAA title Thursday and Friday in the 1995 NCAA Championships at Athens, Ga.

She is among the nation's best three-event athletes, ranking in the top 12 or better by average in vault, beam and floor. She had career highs on all of them (9.975 vault, 9.925 beam and 9.95 floor) this season.

Caudle very much wants to be an all-arounder, and by next season, she should be comfortable enough with her personal makeover on bars to do it. She spent two years at Utah relearning the event like a beginner. She's actually good enough now that coach Greg Marsden can use her, though he has people who score better. In an emergency at Florida a month ago when two team members left to attend a funeral, Caudle debuted on bars with 9.575 and had an exceptional first-ever all-around total of 39.175.

In some ways, Caudle is much like Utah's other Megan - now Mrs. Marsden. That Megan came to Utah an unfulfilled club gymnast afraid of vault. Before she graduated, Marsden had two NCAA all-around titles and an NCAA vault title.

In other ways, Caudle is very much her own story of simmering determination hidden for a long time behind a quiet facade that is sloughing away as her confidence grows.

"She's a tough little gal," says Ute sports psychologist Keith Henschen. "There's a fire under that red hair."

Though she was an elite for three years in club, "I tried to quit many times. My parents knew I had a talent and didn't want to see me give up. I thank them for that now," Caudle says.

After her junior year in high school, the honors student enrolled at Oregon State - near home and her parents' alma mater - and planned to walk onto the gym team. She would be an all-arounder, despite her flaws on bars.

Then Marsden made a routine summer preliminary call to Caudle, expecting to recruit her during her senior high school year only tofind out she was going to college early. He had no scholarships available but promised one her second year. "Greg really thought I could go somewhere, and that made me feel good," Caudle says, her low self-esteem leaving her surprised that the nation's No. 1 team knew of her at all.

With no scholarship promise from OSU, and even though she knew she'd struggle to even compete for Utah, she chose the harder road. "I really wanted to push muself because I knew in club I hadn't reached my full potential," Caudle says. She had an OSU dorm assignment but moved to Utah just as school started. "It was the best decision I could have made," Caudle says. Her parents remain OSU fans. When Utah's at Corvallis, mom wears red but prominently displays her Oregon State pin, and dad wears a Ute sweatshirt under an OSU jacket.

Those who know Caudle best say she's feisty. She calls herself "stubborn-headed." But Caudle stayed oddly in the shadows for some time at Utah. She says, despite Marsden's interest in her, she expected to be reprimanded for every mistake. "That's how I thought all coaches were," she says. It didn't happen. "He helped me do it for myself," she says. "He's not going to go hit a wall if I fall. It was a lot of mental things that I had to get over."

Suzanne Metz, then a sophomore, paid extra attention to the freshman Caudle and the two - both from large families and both much younger than siblings - have become like sisters. Caudle's even become a sharp-tongued jokester like Metz. "I learned a little bit of that from her," Caudle says. "Which is good. The confidence thing."

Caudle saw her life coming together her second year. At the '94 NCAA finals at Utah, she had career-bests (9.975 vault, 9.85 floor) on Super Six night as Utah went from third to first by .05 over Alabama. In '95, she tied her 9.975 on vault and hit career highs of 9.925 on beam and 9,95 on floor twice each.

More importantly, she's gone from dreading gymnastics to craving it. "Now I would give anything to be on the competition floor," she says. "Get me out there. I want to be out there."

This week, she'll need all that accumulated anxiety and feistiness. With eight gymnasts, Utah needs good scores from Caudle to contend. But she hasn't trained in three weeks. Sacroilliac spasms idled her, though she competed in the regional, and she missed practices the last week with illness that doctors think may be mononucleosis.