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2002 a ‘bonus year’ for Utah’s Bowles

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Utah gymnast Shannon Bowles sees this 2002 season as "almost a bonus year."

The captain of the fourth-ranked Utes enters Friday night's meet against Arizona "reminding myself that normally I wouldn't be doing gymnastics anymore."

The meet between Utah (1-0) and seventh-ranked Arizona (5-0) begins at 7 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.

Fifth-year seniors in Utah women's gymnastics are very rare. It's a tough sport in which to come back from a season-ending injury, especially because there's really no future for female gymnasts once their college career is done. There is no pro circuit to speak of, and those who lose a year to rehab often simply get on with the rest of their lives.

But Bowles, who came back last season after she broke a cervical vertebrae while training on a vault just prior to what should have been her junior year (2000), couldn't wait to return. She set or tied career highs in three events in 2001 and led the nation in balance beam Regional Qualifying Score at 9.94.

Now, she has her "bonus" season and started it off well last Friday by winning the all-around (39.45), beam (9.95) and floor (9.875) and tying for the vault (9.9) title with teammate Veronique Leclerc in a 196.20-193.80 season-opening win over Ohio State.

She had no idea she'd done so well. "I didn't have any expectations for the first meet. I just wanted to enjoy it," she said at practice this week. "I really felt like I was just 'in the zone,' enjoying what was going on around me."

Her philosophy for 2002 is that she doesn't want to stress trying to meet specific goals "because that doesn't usually work."

But make no mistake, she will be tough and get tougher as she goes. It may be a bonus season that the senior wants to enjoy, but that doesn't mean she'll snooze through it. Bowles wants to add difficulty in at least three events before the post-season — "slowly adding skills," she said. "I'm working on a mental approach, relaxing, letting myself show what I'm capable of."

After one meet, she's about ready to put in a couple of upgrades, especially a front-tumbling pass on floor that was left out last week mainly because it wasn't really needed.

Even though Bowles won floor in the last meet without the front tumbling, one of the judges marked her down for not having it. It is now an element that's important because of the new international code of points that changes every four years after the Olympics.

She'll also return one of these days to her opening uprise-to-pirouette on bars that she had to drop after her neck injury.

The Utes plan several other upgrades this week after playing it safe in the season opener, said coach Greg Marsden. For instance, Leclerc and Kim Allen might do new bar skills, Leclerc and Melissa Vituj could do new middle tumbling passes, and freshman Annabeth Eberle might take a 1 1/2-punch-front from her first pass and make it a 2 1/2-punch-front in her second pass.

Senior Kylee Wagner will not perform Friday after suffering a sprained ankle in the season opener. She will miss a couple of weeks, Marsden said. Junior Theresa Kulikowski, who bruised a kneecap in a fall last Friday, worked out this week and is expected to be fine.

The Utes also plan to clean up some of the execution errors they made last week. "We'd just like to improve," Marsden said, wary of a much-improved Wildcat opponent that won the Maui Invitational Jan. 5, beating perennial national power and preseason No. 3 Michigan.

Utah leads the series with Arizona 45-0 and has a national-record 165 home-meet win streak that is more than 22 years old. The Wildcats are led by veteran all-arounder Randi Liljenquist, who has scored 39.425 this season and had a career-high of 39.65.

As captain, Bowles instituted a team-meeting system, with the athletes holding a no-coaches session every week where she says they can "tackle issues, —physical or emotional. "

"It's made a huge difference," said Bowles, adding that leadership opportunities are available to others besides her. "It makes my job easier."

She says her role is to lend perspective of experience and to "be supportive and be there for everyone."

As a group, the Utes and Bowles helped talk the hugely talented but very nervous freshman Eberle through her first meet, and after two falls (one in exhibition), she came through with a strong floor routine.

"She did a great job staying positive," Bowles said.

E-MAIL: lham@desnews.com