Maile O’Keefe is a national champion and the reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, but she has gotten even better
O’Keefe was one of the best gymnasts in the country last season, but she has taken another step this year.
There was a stillness that shouldn’t have been possible in an arena filled with 10,000-plus people.
And yet, the moment Maile O’Keefe mounted the balance beam, nearly everyone inside the Huntsman Center scooted closer to the edge of their seats and sat up a little bit straighter.
With bated breath, the throng took in every second of O’Keefe’s performance. Every leap, every flip and every dance element, only breaking out of an almost trance when O’Keefe, after making sure she stuck her dismount, raised her arms high above her head to salute the judges.
With that, a thunderous roar instantly replaced the stillness as thousands snapped out of a daze and back to reality.
That scenario has played out at every Utah gymnastics meet held in Salt Lake City this season, whether it be last Friday night against No. 8 Minnesota, or any of the other four competitions held inside the Huntsman Center.
When O’Keefe competes, she transports viewers somewhere else.
“You watch (her on) balance beam and and you can’t help it, you get drawn in,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.
It shouldn’t be surprising. The best athletes — in this case, gymnasts — have a way of pulling people in. At Utah, MyKayla Skinner did it on floor exercise, and Georgia Dabritz did it on uneven bars before her.
Seeing as O’Keefe is a two-time NCAA national champion and the reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of Year, it would be unusual if she didn’t mesmerize when competing.
The thing is, though, O’Keefe‘s brilliance has been especially pronounced this season.
In other words, already one of the best gymnasts in the country, O’Keefe has been even better this year.
Just a little more perfect
Has O’Keefe actually improved from her sophomore season to her junior year?
After all, 2021 was a breakout season in which she completely shut the door on an up-and-down freshman campaign.
O’Keefe was far and away the best gymnast at Utah and in the Pac-12 last season, and at the 2021 NCAA championships, she became one of only two gymnasts in the country to win multiple national titles, alongside Oklahoma’s Anastasia Webb.
In the process, O’Keefe tied Skinner and Sue Stednitz for the fifth-most individual national titles in Utah history, trailing only Elaine Alfano, Megan McCunniff (Marsden), Theresa Kulikowski and Missy Marlowe.
Ask anyone at Utah, though, and they’ll say that the 2022 version of O’Keefe is better than that of 2021.
“Freshman year was a different year for her, but it also showed her that she could do it, that she was capable,” Utah assistant coach Carly Dockendorf said. “I think that belief set in and obviously her sophomore year was incredible.
“Now she is off to an even better start this year. I think if she continues to believe more and more in what she is doing, and continues to build up her confidence, we will continue to see more incredible routines every week.”
The numbers back that up, if just barely.
In 2021 O’Keefe was brilliant, and through the first 10 meets of the season, had 19 of 34 routines — nearly 56% — score a 9.90 or better.
In 2022, O’Keefe has been equally brilliant. Through 10 meets, 16 of her routines have scored a 9.90 or better. Of her 29 total routines, she has broken the 9.90 barrier 55% of the time.
The difference this season is perfection. Where O’Keefe had a single perfect 10 in 2021, she has recorded three this year, including back-to-back 10s in Utah’s historic victory over Minnesota last weekend. One came on bars, the other on beam.
If you ask Farden, O’Keefe deserves to have four perfect 10s this year, too. He was convinced that O’Keefe competed a perfect routine on beam against Oregon State (she was given an 9.950).
He is also convinced that she is only going to keep competing at a near perfect level going forward.
“She is heating up,” Farden said.
Improvement is in the details
There is no secret as to how O’Keefe has managed to become the gymnast she is. Utah sees it on a daily basis in her training.
Coaches and gymnasts talk all the time about the importance of training and practice, the need to practice like you compete and compete like you practice.
O’Keefe actually does it.
“I think she takes great ownership over the work that she does every day,” Dockendorf said. “She is just consistent every single day trying to get better. You think, ‘How can she get better at it?’ but every single day she will find the smallest detail in her routine and come in and try to make it better.
“That is consistent, every day. Literally every single day she tries to find a small detail to get better at.”
Dockendorf sees it specifically on beam, the event she coaches, an event that also happens to be O’Keefe’s signature event. It holds true in every event, though, including bars and floor, events in which O’Keefe won both her national titles.
“She pushes herself to be the best that she can be,” Dockendorf said, “so when she goes out there, she just does her routine without any doubt. She sets herself to be able to do what she does because of her commitment in the gym during the week.”
Farden is definitely not one who discounts the importance of training. After every Utah meet, he talks about the role practice the week before played in the Red Rocks’ performance.
With O’Keefe, though, he frequently touts her innate ability. She simply has it, that indescribable attribute that sets the truly great athletes apart from the rest, something that cannot be coached.
“Maile is one of those rare athletes that have the attributes it takes,” he said. “That is what I saw when I recruited her. I can’t explain it, but she has the it factor.”
Cristal Isa is one of the Red Rocks closest to O’Keefe. Both are from Las Vegas (Isa is from the nearby suburb of Henderson), and they have known each other since their early teens.
In Isa’s eyes, O’Keefe has just realized her potential.
“Honestly, I am just in awe of it,” Isa said. “I think something just clicked her sophomore year, not in the preseason, but right when (the) season started. She just realized ‘What the heck am I doing, I’m Maile O’Keefe, I can do anything.’
“She had this huge breakout season that people were expecting her freshman year, but I think those expectations were a lot. It was a lot for her to stop elite, go to Level 10 and then go to college and have everyone expect her to do amazing things.
“Once she got over that, got past all of that, she realized what she could do. And now she is the sturdiest little rock ever.”
Where does she go from here?
O’Keefe recently reflected on her career at Utah, and while she appreciates the success she has had, she isn’t in awe of it. Far from it.
“I’d won national championships before,” she said.
Rather than bask in her successes, O’Keefe instead tries to focus on what is ahead of her. She believes that to be even greater responsibility, in and out of competition.
O’Keefe isn’t currently on Utah’s leadership council — the four-woman council includes Sydney Soloski, Alexia Burch, Isa and Jaylene Gilstrap — but after three years in Salt Lake City, she believes herself ready to lead the team.
“I can see myself being a captain and leading,” O’Keefe said. “Learning from Syd and Lexi, leadership it is really important to me. I’ve grown in my mindset, going from individual to team. I’ve learned how to handle that and be OK with that.”
Given the way she has excelled at everything else at Utah, overcoming every significant challenge along the way, it is safe to say that O’Keefe will succeed again.
And as she’s shown over the last two seasons, when she succeeds, so does Utah gymnastics.