SALT LAKE CITY — On March 6, 2015, the then No. 4 Red Rocks hosted the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines in a late-season clash fit for the Super Six.
Utah fans turned out in droves, setting a new NCAA record for attendance, with 16,019 people filling the Huntsman Center, well past its official capacity.
The throngs of red-clad fans were not disappointed, as the Red Rocks defeated the Wolverines 198.250-197.675.
Star gymnast Georgia Dabritz was the standout, she earned a perfect 10.0 on uneven bars.
Not overshadowed in the least, however, was a Utah freshman out of Peoria, Arizona — Kari Lee.
Lee, now a redshirt junior, was sensational that day against Michigan, with scores of 9.975 on beam, 9.925 on vault and a 9.900 on floor. It was and remains, statistically at least, the finest outing of her Ute career.
“I do remember that meet,” Lee said.
The meet provided a glimpse, as did her entire freshman year, into the type of gymnast Lee could be.
With her help, Utah finished second in the country, the program's best finish in the past decade.
Everything looked to be on the up and up heading into the 2016 campaign. The sky seemed to be the limit for Lee.
It wasn’t to be, however. Four weeks into the season, she tore her Achilles tendon in practice.
“I injured myself two years ago, Jan. 26, on a Tuesday. I specifically remember the day,” said Lee. “Friday was my two-year mark of when I tore my Achilles and yesterday (Jan. 29) was my two-year mark from when I had surgery.”
“It was during practice,” Lee continued. “I was punching for my double-tuck (a skill she no longer does due to its impact on her legs) and it just popped on the takeoff. As soon as I took off I knew. I just rolled onto my back and immediately started crying, not because of the pain, but because I knew. Everything just flashed at me at that moment, the recovery. I knew the process of (rehab). I had had teammates and siblings who had gone through it.”
For the next year, Lee battled through that difficult process.
“It was a long one of lots of ups and downs,” said Lee.
Thanks to the blessing of good genetics, the makeup of Lee’s Achilles made it ideally suited for a quick recovery, not to mention ridiculous amounts of rehab, she was back out there with her team for the 2017 season.
And yet, she still wasn’t the same.
“I think last year I saw glimmers of Kari from her freshman year, but I do think it takes some time to build the confidence to be back at that level again,” Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden said. “Not just waiting for the physical to heal, but to get that feeling where you are on top of your game again.”
A high-ankle sprain just before the postseason put a stopper on any forward momentum Lee had achieved, unfortunately.
“The sprained ankle hurt more than tearing my Achilles,” said Lee. “It just throbbed and would not go away.”
“A high ankle sprain is very painful and not a quick heal,” added Marsden. “The timing of it all was really a bummer. She had begun to show signs of great help for us on three events.”
Those signs, so frequently and painfully cast aside the past few years, finally showed themselves again this past Friday at Arizona.
It was in Tucson where, 1,061 days after her stellar showing against Michigan, Lee recorded a 9.900 or above on all three events she competed in, a feat she has now pulled off just two times in her career.
“I have seen that in places at times, but to put together all three events that she was on, and to do them so well, was fun to see,” said Marsden. “I like seeing that she is beginning to let that all move away and she is enjoying the moment.”
“This year I feel more healthy,” added Lee. “I just want to do the best I can on each event.”
If Friday was any indication, she may at long last be able to do just that.