Try as he might, Tom Farden couldn’t help but laugh.
The head coach of Utah’s gymnastics program, Farden fields plenty of questions from media on a weekly basis, some of which are more astute than others.
This particular question was a doozy, though, and not on the astute side of the spectrum.
Farden was raised in Minnesota — Dayton to be specific — and the question put to him was whether or not his ties to his home state have benefited him while at Utah.
His response, post chuckle, was immediate.
“It is huge,” Farden said. “Easy to see if you really look at where we get, where we’ve gotten some good kids from. I was there for so long and built a lot of in-roads in recruiting.”
Currently, Utah boasts two gymnasts from Minnesota, U.S. Olympian Grace McCallum and former U.S. senior national team member Abby Paulson.
Go back through Utah’s roster since Farden arrived in Salt Lake City in 2011, and the Red Rocks have had four Minnesotans — McCallum, Paulson, Breanna Hughes and Taylor Allex.
With just a little bit of research, it is easy to see that Utah has done nothing but benefit from Farden’s ties to his homes state.
Since Farden arrived at Utah, though, no group of Red Rocks have had more ties to Minnesota than this 2021-22 group, which is apropos given Utah hosts the University of Minnesota this weekend.
A Minnesota pipeline
Farden could go on and on about his connections and ties to Minnesota, both the state and the university.
As he told former University of Minnesota star gymnast (and U.S. Olympian) John Roethlisberger and Alicia Sacramone during a recent appearance on their show “Out of Bounds,” as young child he would get dropped off by his father at Minnesota meets, where for $2 he would watch Roethlisberger compete.
Farden rarely walked away disappointed.
“(My dad) would pick me up and ask, ‘Well, did you have a good time?’ I’d always say, ‘Yep, great time,’” Farden said.
Starting at age of 6 until he was 18, Farden was a gymnast himself, and when that period of his life ended and he graduated from high school, he helped found a gym with Bart Roskoski, who is still his still best friend.
“We are like hammer meet nail,” Farden said.
That venture ultimately didn’t work out, but Farden went on to coach at TAGS Gymnastics in Minnesota before setting off on the college coaching career that eventually saw him land in Salt Lake City.
All of it — the gymnastics and the coaching journey — set the foundation for the relationships that Farden now has with coaches whose gyms have produced athletes who have gone on to compete and star for Utah, Oklahoma, Denver, Georgia, Minnesota, LSU and UCLA, among others.
Minnesota currently boasts some of best club gyms in America. Midwest Gymnastics was the home to Olympic all-around champion and current Auburn star Sunisa Lee, and Twin City Twisters boasts famous alumni like McCallum, Paulson, former Oklahoma star Maggie Nichols and current Sooner Olivia Trautman.
Then there is Flips Gymnastics — run by Roskoski and his wife, Lori — which has sent gymnasts to Denver and Minnesota. Fun fact: Lori just so happens to be Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler’s sister.
Thanks to his background, Farden has relationships with all of them and more.
“All of those guys, I have close ties with all of them,” he said. “They run in my circle.”
Utah or Oklahoma?
It isn’t coincidence then that Utah has McCallum and Paulson in the fold, although to be sure, Farden’s ties to Minnesota aren’t the only reason they ended up at Utah.
Farden played a role — he was the primary recruiter of both gymnasts and followed McCallum around the world — but each gymnast has their own story behind what led them to Salt Lake City.
Paulson, for instance, has been a Utah fan for as long as she can remember.
Like many current Red Rocks, she was in awe of Utah great Georgia Dabritz and decided at an early age that the University of Utah was the school for her.
“Utah was my dream school,” Paulson said. She committed to Utah in 2015 (her freshman season was in 2020).
It was after Paulson committed to the Utes that McCallum switched gyms and ended up at Twin City Twisters.
The duo became immediate teammates, training in the same elite group, alongside Trautman.
“We trained together through all that, the extra practices and whatnot,” Paulson said. “Her first year of elite gymnastics was actually my last year, but we were in the same training groups after that. We were pretty close.”
Close enough that Paulson could have tried to significantly influence McCallum on her choice of school, and while both she and Trautman touted the benefits of Utah and Oklahoma at times — Utah and Oklahoma were the two main schools that vied for McCallum — for the most part McCallum was left to make her own decision.
“(Abby) definitely let me do my thing,” McCallum said. “She never pressured me into going to Utah. She would tell me what an amazing school it is, and once I came out here I saw it, but she was never like ‘You have to go.’”
Neither Paulson nor McCallum ever seriously considered attending the University of Minnesota, Paulson because Utah was her dream school and McCallum because Minneapolis just wasn’t the city for her.
“I never thought about going to Minnesota,” McCallum said. “The university is amazing, but the campus is in the city and spread out everywhere. I just didn’t want to go in Minneapolis. That city is so big, it stresses me out.”
A rock for life
The University of Minnesota is the current home of Tiarre Sales, a gymnast few Utah fans will know or recognize, but there is no more important person in the world to Utah senior Cristal Isa.
Sales and Isa are best friends, and that might actually be underselling it.
Isa describes Salas as “pretty much my go-to person. She is my rock, for life, and she can’t get out of it now.”
The pair met early in their gymnastics careers — Isa started in 2008 — thanks to an introduction from one of Isa’s teammates. When Salas switched gyms before their freshman year in high school, moving to GymCats in Henderson, Nevada, with Isa, their bond was sealed.
“We became pretty much inseparable,” Isa said.
While being recruited, Isa and Salas both wanted to attend Pac-12 schools, but injuries threw Salas’ recruitment in another direction and she ended up at Minnesota.
Because of that, the friends have alternated where they’ve spent their summers in college between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.
By happenstance, Minnesota is Utah’s opponent on Senior Night, the very night that Isa was supposed to be honored, alongside fellow seniors Sydney Soloski, Alexia Burch, Cammy Hall and Adrienne Randall.
Hall, Isa and Randall all have an additional year of eligibility remaining because of the pandemic, though, (Hall actually has two years remaining because she tore her Achilles prior to her freshman season) and Utah announced on Wednesday that Isa is coming back for a final season (Hall and Randall’s decisions haven’t been made public).
Still, to have Salas in Salt Lake City for Utah’s home finale, well Isa couldn’t have asked for much more.
“We pretty much started in gymnastics together and we will pretty much finish together which is kind of emotional,” Isa said. “I’m really grateful.
A team of that caliber
Minnesota won’t exactly be an advantageous opponent for Utah, however.
The Golden Gophers are one of the rising programs in the NCAA and boast the reigning AAI Award winner in Lexy Ramler, a Minnesota native.
Under head coach Jenny Hansen, Minnesota has all but turned a corner, becoming one of the elite or near elite programs in the country.
“I have a soft spot for Minnesota,” Farden said. “The staff has done an incredible job. We want to continue to see teams of that caliber and now one just happens to be where I’m from. How cool is that?
“They are recruiting well. They are recruiting some of the best athletes they’ve ever had, and they are from their own state. Before, some of those kids might have slipped out to an Oklahoma or Utah.”
As long as Farden is around, though, Utah will continue to place an emphasis on Minnesota, whether or not the Golden Gophers make it difficult. And odds are, Minnesota will continue to pay off for the Red Rocks.
“It has been crazy how many good gymnasts have either gone to Minnesota or come out of Minnesota,” McCallum said. “It is really cool to see.”