It was the final rotation of the Salt Lake City Regional final and Utah was reeling.

Up to that point in the competition, the Red Rocks had dominated inside the Maverik Center, building what appeared to be an insurmountable lead over LSU, ASU and Kentucky, but back-to-back-to-back subpar vaults had left Utah in danger of not qualifying for nationals.

That was where Jaedyn Rucker came in. With the pressure mounting, Rucker nailed her vault, with a stuck landing and everything, earning a career-high 9.950.

Utah Utes gymnast Jaedyn Rucker and her team react after her vault during the NCAA regional final round at the Maverik Center on Saturday, April 3, 2021. The Utes are moving on to the next round. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

The reaction was immediate. Her teammates rushed out of Utah’s corral to celebrate, leaping in the air and sprinting down the runway, before hugs and high-fives were handed out to everyone and anyone who stood within an arm’s length.

Some of that reaction was because Rucker had staunched the bleeding and Utah was headed to nationals for a 45th straight time. Not all of it, though, not even most of it.

The celebration and excitement that followed Rucker’s vault had everything to do with her and her comeback.

‘I don’t know if you are going to come back from this’

A week before the start of her senior season of high school back in February 2019, Rucker tore her ACL.

It was the first major injury of her gymnastics career, and a devastating one given she had signed with Utah in November 2018 and was hoping to make a smooth transition from club gymnastics to college gymnastics.

“The timing was not good,” Rucker said.

She had surgery to repair her ACL in February, too, wasting little time in an effort to be available to compete for Utah as soon as possible. The typical recovery time from an ACL surgery is about six to eight months, so in a perfect world Rucker would have been 100% recovered, physically at least, by October 2019 at the latest, a couple months before the start of the 2019-20 season.

“Obviously we are incredibly proud of (Jaedyn) and her sheer determination to get to this point. She is critical. She has been a key component and is someone who at her optimal level, has the stripes to compete at the back end of the lineup on an elite team. For her to come back and be in the position she is in, to be the contributor she is, it is what we envisioned.” — Utah coach Tom Farden

Things did not go as planned, however. Rehab did not produce the desired result and Rucker “wasn’t even close to 100% coming in to Utah.” Even then, though, she wasn’t discouraged, given the reputation of the university.

“I knew I would be in a better position than I was (at home), because of the program and the things that are provided here,” she said. “I wasn’t really too stressed.”

Upon her arrival, however, it quickly became apparent to Utah’s coaching and training staff that something was off with Rucker’s knee.  

“We knew we needed to take a second look at it,” Utah assistant coach Garrett Griffeth said.

That second look revealed that Rucker had a cyclops lesion, a buildup of scar tissue in the knee that is rare complication that can follow ACL surgery. The lesion prevented her from being able to fully extend or bend her knee, to say nothing of the pain, and her inability to use her knee caused the muscles in her leg to atrophy.

The only solution was another surgery, which no one wanted.

“Any time you have two (surgeries) on the same knee it is a big deal,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.

It was at that time that doubt started to creep in for Rucker. She had always wanted to be a collegiate gymnast, but that dream seemed further away than ever before.

“A lot of people around me starting doubting, because it had been so long,” Rucker said, “saying things like ‘I don’t know if you will be able to (compete)’ or ‘I don’t know if you are going to come back from this.’ I even started to to think, ‘Am I really not going to recover?’”

‘If you tell me I can’t do something, then I’m going to go do it.’

Fortunately for Rucker, she doesn’t do well with being told no. That character trait is one of the reasons Farden recruited her.

“A lot of people have a chip on their shoulder, but I’m looking for the big chip,” Farden said. “I’m looking for the ones that want to prove something and she struck me as somebody like that.”

It took very little time for Griffeth to come to a similar conclusion.

“Jaedyn has a huge chip on her shoulder,” he said. “If she is told she might not do something, like she might not compete that vault again, I think she wants to prove people wrong.”

So the doubt that Rucker spoke of, she quickly found a way to dispel it.

“I learned to use that (doubt) and channeled it into something positive,” she said. “I used that as my motivation, my why. I do love proving people wrong. If you tell me I can’t do something, then I’m going to go do it. I am going to prove you wrong.”

That mentality proved vital for Rucker’s recovery. After her second surgery, she had to start the entire rehab process over. To say that was difficult is an understatement.

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“I couldn’t do much in the gym, really only basic things like kicks or cartwheels,” she said. “I was struggling pretty hard, but then I told myself, ‘You know what you are doing, you can come back from this.’ There were a lot of people around me starting to doubt, but that kind of flipped a switch in my head, and I was like ‘I am not going to let someone tell me I can’t do something when I know I can.’”

Before the pandemic hit, Rucker had begun to rebuild the foundation of her gymnastics. Last spring, while her teammates were busy competing for a national title contender, she had started training into loose foam, trying soft landings.

“We were doing basics like that for a long time,” Griffeth said.

When the season was cut abruptly short, Rucker returned home to Mesa, Arizona, and she didn’t waste any time getting to work.

“I used the time to train in my old gym, with my old coaches,” she said. “They know me better than I know myself probably, and I took advantage of that.”

When she returned to Utah in August, Rucker was a changed person. Not because she was ready to compete yet — she wasn’t — but because for the first time in more than a year, she was on her way.

“When I got back all of my teammates and coaches described me as being a completely different person,” Rucker said. “I was finally where I wanted to be. I was happy, I was motivated and I was excited. I had always wanted to do college gymnastics. That is what every gymnast works their whole career for, and I was like, ‘It is finally my time.’”

‘Do I step?’

A major part of the recovery from a serious injury is mental, and while Rucker was close to being 100% physically ready to compete when she returned to Salt Lake City in the fall, she wasn’t quite there mentally.

So Farden, Griffeth — Utah’s vault coach — and volunteer assistant coach Courtney McCool Griffeth — Utah’s floor coach — set about trying to build her confidence back up.

“This year was about getting her confident and letting her compete again,” Griffeth said. “Build that up and then next year really hone in.”

During the preseason, McCool-Griffeth helped Rucker learn and implement a new tumbling pass, one that “is a little bit safer and that she can visually see,” said Farden.

And on vault, Griffeth had Rucker train the easier Yurchenko full, rather than the more difficult Yurchenko 1.5 that she had competed at the Junior Olympic level.

“She’d been out for almost two years with the surgeries. She was a freshman competition-wise because she hadn’t competed,” Griffeth said. “When you suffer a tragic injury like that, on that scale, there are a lot of mental blocks that you have to work through to come back. In our minds, we were going to stick her out there with a (Yurchenko) full, let it be clean, and let her get some confidence.”

Rucker competed the Yurchenko full in multiple meets to start the season, but she couldn’t ever seem to stick it.

“There was just so much pressure on my lower limbs coming from that height,” she explained.

So one day, Griffeth approached Rucker about training and competing the Yurchenko 1.5 again, the idea being that they’d “be safe with it, and focus on taking a small controlled step on the landing,”

At first, Rucker was terrified of the idea, but she quickly came around to it and once she landed her first Yurchenko 1.5 in training, it was over.

“As soon as I landed my first one on the mat, I was like, ‘Oh I’m fine,’” Rucker said. “I knew then that I’d be OK.”

There was still some hesitation when it came to sticking her vault during competition, though, so over the the later half of the season Rucker didn’t stick a single landing. Instead, she’d try to take a controlled step, sometimes to great effect. The controlled step even became something of a joke between her and Griffeth, especially as she began to stick landings in practice.

Utah Utes’ Jaedyn Rucker reacts after her vault during the NCAA Regional Final Round at the Maverik Center on Saturday, April 3, 2021. The Utes are moving on to the next round. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

“It has become an inside joke, because every time I stick I’m like, ‘Do I step Garrett?’” Rucker said with a laugh.

In warmups ahead of the regional final, Rucker stuck the landing on one of her vaults, so of course she turned to Griffeth and asked, “‘Am I supposed to take a step?’”

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Unlike all the previous times, though, Griffeth told her no.

“I said, ‘At that point, let’s just take the stick,’” he said.

Two hours later, she took the stick, only one that counted. It couldn’t have come at a better time, for Rucker or Utah.

“Obviously we are incredibly proud of her and her sheer determination to get to this point,” Farden said. “She is critical. She has been a key component and is someone who at her optimal level, has the stripes to compete at the back end of the lineup on an elite team. For her to come back and be in the position she is in, to be the contributor she is, it is what we envisioned.”

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