Utah’s third-place finish at nationals wasn’t exactly what the Utes wanted, but ...
The Red Rocks finished behind Oklahoma and Florida at the NCAA gymnastics championship, Utah’s second consecutive third place finish
FORT WORTH, Texas — Standing at the top of the lower bowl inside Dickies Arena, Sage Thompson was in tears, the outsized elephant tears that just can’t be helped sometimes.
About 100 feet away from her toward the floor the arena, Cammy Hall was all smiles surrounded by loved ones, sporting her signature megawatt grin that could threaten to outshine the sun.
Fifty feet beyond Hall in the middle of the stands stood Abby Paulson, a tad reserved but friendly as she doled out hugs and intermittently posed for photographs with fans.
The dichotomy of emotions displayed by Utah’s gymnasts Saturday afternoon was fitting in the aftermath of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships.
First things first, the Red Rocks didn’t win the national title.
For the 27th consecutive year, Utah’s gymnastics team walked away without the championship trophy, extending a drought that goes back to 1995 — Utah was the dominant program through the ’80s and early ’90s — the last year Utah was on top of the sport.
Oklahoma took home the crown — the Sooners’ fifth title since 2014 — with Florida finishing a close second, followed by Utah and Auburn.
- Team scores — Oklahoma, 198.2000; Florida, 198.0875; Utah, 197.7500; Auburn, 197.3500.
- All-around — Trinity Thomas (Florida); 39.8625.
- Balance beam — Ragan Smith (Oklahoma); 9.9625.
- Floor exercise — Trinity Thomas (Florida); 10.000.
- Uneven bars — Trinity Thomas (Florida), Danielle Sievers (Oklahoma); 9.9750.
- Vault — Trinity Thomas (Florida); 9.9875.
The Utes finished in third place for the second consecutive season, and they weren’t exactly happy about it.
They had loftier goals than that when the season began.
“We set out on a journey to do a little bit more this year,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.
And yet, for any disappointment that followed their placement behind Oklahoma and Florida, there was also satisfaction, peace even.
Utah made it to the final competition — the Final Four — the pinnacle of college gymnastics. The Red Rocks were, are and remain one of the top teams in the sport, and they relished in that.
“Obviously it is not the outcome we all had hoped for, but by no means do I think that this was disappointing,” fifth-year senior Sydney Soloski said.
“It just wasn’t the day we needed to have to win, but by no means does that diminish the performance we just had. There were still a lot of highs. We are ranked third in the country.”
Farden took it further.
“Let me start by saying, in any sport, it is hard to get to the Final Four,” he said. “I don’t care what sport. If you get there, you are the elite of the elite.
“I am really proud, and our staff is really proud of this year. We had some bumps in the road, but sometimes that is just the way it goes. It doesn’t, for us, take away from all of the great moments we had, unbelievable moments with Utah gymnastics this season.”
Utah was competitive Saturday. This wasn’t a case in which the Red Rocks were completely outclassed and limped into their final placement.
For half of the competition, in fact, Utah was better than any team on the floor.
After starting out on balance beam and then moving to floor exercise, Utah was in first place, thanks to back-to-back standout rotations replete with highlight worthy routines.
Kara Eaker performed the best beam routine of practically the entire competition, with only Oklahoma’s Ragan Smith passing her, and on the final beam routine of the day at that.
Kara Eaker on beam IS the definition of elegant😍 @_karaeaker scores a 9.95!!— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) April 16, 2022
💻 https://t.co/8IkPWMl5E2 pic.twitter.com/ufw8sIiXih
Paulson recorded a pair of 9.900s on beam and on floor, standouts among the many.
On floor, Soloski’s anchor performance drew raucous applause from the entire crowd, not just those of the Utah persuasion. It was a reaction she wasn’t expecting.
Take a bow, @Sydney_soloski ‼️— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) April 16, 2022
Talk about a CLUTCH performance... Syd scores a 9.9125!
💻 https://t.co/8IkPWMl5E2 pic.twitter.com/prZqgxfvxQ
“What a cool way to be done,” she said, wiping tears off her cheeks. “I don’t know. ... Fans surprise you every time. It was so cool. What a fun moment for me. Oh man, a lot of emotions right now.”
Utah’s beam and floor rotations weren’t perfect, of course.
Maile O’Keefe struggled with her floor routine — specifically with her wolf turn — and her’s was the lowest scored routine by any gymnast in the competition.
Her emotions boiled over so much that she had to leave the floor momentarily to gather herself.
Cristal Isa, arguably Utah’s most consistent gymnast, was nowhere close to her best on beam, an event where she had previously earned a perfect 10.
Grace McCallum, who competed admirably on both events, if not to her ultimate capabilities, admitted afterward that she was already thinking about where she could have been better.
“Thinking back I’m like, ‘I can make up a tenth here and a tenth here,’” she said.
At the midway point of the competition, though, Utah was on top.
Things turned sour on vault, where outside of a monster performance by Jaedyn Rucker — she bested her individual national title winning vault from Thursday with a 9.9750 — Utah struggled mightily.
Show us all why you are the NCAA vault champion why don't you ‼️— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) April 16, 2022
What a vault for @JaedynRucker and she scores a 9.975 😱
💻 https://t.co/8IkPWMl5E2 pic.twitter.com/3OIDvsVOfI
No gymnast, outside of Rucker, scored better than a 9.8375.
But when things moved to bars, Utah was elite again, thanks in part to standout routines by McCallum, Amelie Morgan, Thompson and O’Keefe.
What a performance from @grace_mccallum2 👏 #ThatsaW @UtahGymnastics pic.twitter.com/B9wJahNZyz— espnW (@espnW) April 16, 2022
It was a performance that stood in stark contrast to what Utah did on bars during Thursday’s semifinals.
“We figured out the bounce on the bars,” Farden said. “Our athletes were more comfortable out there, and you could see it. And what did we have to lose? We were already in third place.”
In totality, Utah’s efforts, admittedly not their best, weren’t enough, and because of that the Red Rocks are headed back to Salt Lake City sans their desired national championship.
Don’t tell them that Saturday was a disappointment, though. Not when they competed toe-to-toe with their fellow giants in the sport and remain primed to do so again for years to come.
“There are a good chunk of us leaving,” Soloski said, “but there are a lot of incredible girls on the team and they will emerge. ... The culture of this program is excellence, and that will continue.”
Added the freshman McCallum: “In the next three years here, I hope we can win a national championship, but I am so proud of what this team did here today.
“They did everything they could.”
Like every Utah team the last two decades-plus, on this particular day in Fort Worth, it just wasn’t enough.