A former standout gymnast at the University of Utah, Tessen, like many others, was elated Sunday night when Team USA announced that MyKayla Skinner, Grace McCallum and Kara Eaker were all headed to Tokyo for the 2021 Olympic Games.
Amid the celebration that Utah’s gymnastics program had three athletes — past and future — who were officially among the world’s best, Tessen’s mind drifted to thoughts of her former coach Tom Farden.
Was he OK? How was he handling the news?
has anyone checked to see if Tom is ok rn— (@kim_tessen) June 28, 2021
Tessen’s concern, a jest though it was, was understandable. It isn’t often that an NCAA coach can say he has coached and will coach U.S. Olympians. In the history of Utah’s program, arguably the most successful in college gymnastics history, the Red Rocks have only had one American make the Olympic team, the legendary Missy Marlowe in 1988.
After Sunday, that number jumped to three, as Skinner and McCallum will compete for Team USA in Tokyo, with Eaker serving as an alternate. Had the 47-year-old Farden suffered some heart palpitations that night, who could have blamed him?
He is fine, it turns out. Better than fine even.
“It was wonderful,” he told the Deseret News. “I am really pleased. It is a little surreal to have three athletes of that caliber in Tokyo.”
Of the three, Farden has the closest connection with Skinner, only because he has coached her already. Skinner competed three seasons at the U., from 2017-19, all with Farden as her head coach. McCallum and Eaker, meanwhile, will make their Utah debuts this winter following the Olympics.
Farden was on hand in St. Louis over the weekend, inside The Dome at America’s Center, to watch Skinner and the others compete at the highest level of the sport again — he was there at the Olympic trials in 2016 as well when Skinner was named an alternate — and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t hanging on their every routine.
“It was obviously different with MyKayla because I coached her for three years,” Farden said. “I was really invested for MyKayla. Watching her was different than watching Grace and Kara just because I’d spent so much time with her.
“I know how invested she is in this goal and dream. For her to leave the University of Utah on a hiatus and go and chase this dream and then have it get extended, only have her say, ‘I’m going to keep going ...’ I knew how much it meant to her.”
When it was announced that Skinner was an Olympian, Farden was over the moon, and a little relieved.
“I knew how bad she wanted it,” he said. “Her whole life’s ambition has been to be an Olympian, for her dream to come true,” he said, trailing off. “I talked to her after the meet and I told her, ‘You’re a natural born fighter’ because that is who she is. She did that all through her career here so when she made that Olympic team, I wasn’t surprised. That is her. That is MyKayla. She is going to fight to the bitter end and she did.”
During the Olympic trials, Skinner’s profile erupted, the story of her career detailed over and over again. That was to be expected, Farden said. Skinner’s path to the Olympics is unprecedented.
“It is not usual, what she has done,” he said. “She did not take the usual path to make the Olympic team. People don’t leave the Elite scene, the world team member scene, as an Olympic type of athlete. They don’t leave that, go to the NCAA, and then come back for an additional two years, and that is essentially what she has done.”
While Farden might be more familiar with Skinner, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know McCallum and Eaker. He has recruited them for years, literally traveling across the world to various competitions, all in the hope of getting them to ultimately come to Salt Lake City.
It worked. They are coming. Both signed letters of intent in November 2020.
“To see them both out there giving it their all, and then having incredible results, it is, it leaves you a little speechless,” Farden said.
Don’t talk to him like Eaker isn’t an Olympian, either. In his eyes, she is right there with Skinner and McCallum and should be ready for anything.
“Obviously Grace made the team and Kara is a reserve, but anything can happen,” he said. “Right now with COVID-19 and the quarantine process, the things that they are going into and the things that we just survived, those gymnasts not in the lineup better be ready.
“I think that is probably resonating with the Olympic teams reserves, and if I were the national team coordinator or Olympic head coach, I would be saying that to them. It is just an uncharted time and you just don’t know.”
While Utah’s program has a storied history and just finished the 2020-21 season as the No. 3 team in the country, Farden expects McCallum and Eaker to make an immediate and lasting impact.
“They are going to come in after competing on the world stage at the highest level and they are going to have that confidence that we saw when MyKayla came here,” he said. “To have two athletes with that kind of experience, I think it bodes well for the overall confidence of the team going forward.
“In all reality, in my mind, they are the best of the best. I know the profile and legacy of this program and I knew about it when I came here. I know that we are a legendary program and I know I have been tasked to make it even more legendary. Having Grace and Kara, I don’t think it hurts.”
Before that, though, Farden will be cheering them on from afar while they compete for gold medals.