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Kara Eaker has returned to form at the perfect time for Utah

Eaker missed almost the entire regular season with an ankle injury, but is back now, with a perfect 10 on beam in only her fifth competitive routine

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In this file photo, Utah’s Kara Eaker competes on the beam as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Minnesota in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. Eaker recorded a perfect 10 in the Seattle Regional final.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

The look on Kara Eaker’s face said it all.

She had just finished competing on balance beam at the Seattle Regional final. Just finished hugging her teammates and celebrating that she had nailed her routine.

Then the scores were unveiled.

Eaker had earned a perfect 10, the first of her collegiate career and it had come in only her fifth competitive beam routine.

Utah freshman Kara Eaker celebrates with teammate Cristal Isa after finishing her balance beam routine at the Seattle Regional final in Seattle on April 2, 2022. Eaker earned a perfect 10 on just the second competitive set she’d performed since suffering a Grade 2 ankle sprain early in the season.

Utah Athletics

Joy radiated from her. It was a display of excitement and happiness that is difficult to put into words, the closest description having something to do with a bright-eyed toddler opening presents on Christmas morning.

Given the setting and the stakes — Utah was locked in an incredibly close competition with No. 5 Alabama and No. 12 Michigan State, and only the top two teams would advance to nationals — it was understandable.

Eaker’s routine came with immense pressure, and her successful performance set the stage for Maile O’Keefe to win the regional final for Utah and send the Red Rocks to nationals for the 46th consecutive season.

But Eaker’s triumph in Seattle wasn’t just about that single meet or a single routine.

Isolated and alone

The last year in Eaker’s life has been filled with setbacks and disappointments, amid some of the greatest achievements of her gymnastics career.

Eaker is one of the most decorated athletes to ever compete for Utah. Before coming to Utah, Eaker was:

  • A four-year member of the U.S. National Team (2017-21).
  • A two-time world champion as a member of Team USA.
  • Considered one of, if not the best, beam workers in the world, after finishing first in the event at the 2017 U.S. Championships, the 2018 American Classic, the 2018 and ’19 Pan American Championships and the 2019 U.S. Classic.

At the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, after a summer of training amid pandemic-induced restrictions, Eaker was excellent and finished second on beam, sixth on floor and seventh in the all-around.

It wasn’t quite enough for her to be named one of the four U.S. team members that would go on to win the silver medal in Tokyo. Those honors went to Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum, while Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner competed for the U.S. as individuals.

Eaker was named a U.S. alternate, though, along with Leanne Wong, Emma Malabuyo and Kayla DiCello, and she traveled to Japan determined to be ready if called upon.

It was there that everything fell apart.

After arriving in Japan, Eaker tested positive for COVID-19, despite having been vaccinated. That positive test meant that there was no chance that she would be able to compete at the Olympic Games.

Barring a run at the 2024 Paris Olympics, Eaker’s international career was done.

It was worse than that, though. As part of the procedures established to limit the spread of COVID-19, Eaker was quarantined in a hotel room, not even in Tokyo, almost completely removed from her teammates and coaches.

For 10 days she was alone, her only human contact occurring when her coach would come stand in the hallway, far away from the entrance to Eaker’s room, and Eaker would open the door and the pair would chat briefly.

It was enough to drive anyone crazy.

“I couldn’t have connection with my own teammate Leanne or my coaches,” Eaker told the Deseret News. “At first I was like, ‘I can take a breather and rest for a little bit,’ but after three days I started going a little crazy having to be by myself that long. It was not fun.”

Never had she ever

Upon her return home to Grain Valley, Missouri, Eaker set her sights on Utah. She had signed with the Red Rocks on Nov. 11, 2020, but did so sight unseen.

Before landing in Salt Lake City ahead of the fall semester in 2021, Eaker had never seen the Wasatch Front, walked around the U. or met most of her teammates.

What could have compelled one of the best gymnasts in the country to commit to the University of Utah without even seeing it? That would be who, the answer being Utah head coach Tom Farden.

The first time Eaker remembers meeting Farden was in October 2018, at the Pan American Championships.

It was a short introduction, but the beginning of a relationship that would lead Eaker to Salt Lake City.

“We went to breakfast and he was there,” Eaker said. “(Tom) had been at competitions that my previous coach Al (Fong) had hosted, but I got to meet him then.”

Farden would follow Eaker around the world, to South America, Europe and all over the United States.

She was the ideal Utah recruit, and Farden wasn’t about to let her go somewhere else without a fight.

“(Kara) always had high E (execution) scores,” Farden explained, “and I have benchmarks for E scores when I recruit. Hers were always magnificent.”

Even to this day, Farden’s eyes light up when he talks about Eaker. She was, and remains, the ideal college gymnast.

Much of her prowess with execution can be traced back to her club gym, Great American Gymnastics Express.

“That was always an emphasis at her club,” Farden said.

While other elite gymnasts focused on improving their difficulty or D scores, Eaker was always focused on execution.

She was committed to perfecting her skills, even if they were slightly less difficult than the ones performed by some of her peers.

“My whole elite career I focused on perfection, rather than difficulty,” Eaker said. “My skills weren’t always as hard as the other girls, so I had to make my execution stand out.”

It should be noted that Eaker still has quite the repertoire of skills. You don’t contend for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and not have an array of astounding abilities.

“It blows your mind,” Farden said. “You have these athletes and they come in, these national team kids, these Olympians, and they have this assortment of skills.

“They are like ‘Oh I can do that, I’ve done this, I can do that,’ and as a coach you’re like ‘Well what haven’t you done? That is right, there is not much.”

What convinced Eaker to take her elite skills and execution to Utah had nothing to do with gymnastics, though. Instead, it was schooling and Farden’s support of it.

A mechanical engineering major, Eaker is a student first and a gymnast second, and Utah’s engineering program, coupled with Farden’s support of gymnasts’ pursuit of their educations, was enough to convince her that Utah was the place for her.

“I am very happy with my decision to come here,” Eaker said. “Tom was really supportive of my decision and my major.

“He provides a lot of help and support, connecting you with people that you need. Knowing that I had that support from him and the program really stood out to me.”

The ankle injury

Before this season, Eaker was primed for an elite freshman campaign, possibly not all that dissimilar from what her friend and former teammate Wong has done at Florida.

Despite some issues with her shoulders — it was nothing serious enough to require surgery, but she did go through rehab after arriving at Utah — Eaker was in rare form at the Red Rocks Preview in late December.

“I thought Kara did excellent,” Farden said, after Utah’s annual preseason showcase. “I think she was in the same ranks on her two events as Maile was on her three. Championship form already.”

Entering Utah’s season opener at the Best of Utah, Eaker was slated to compete on three events — beam, floor and vault — and if everything had gone according to plan, she would have been one of Utah’s most significant contributors this season, along with O’Keefe, McCallum, Abby Paulson, Cristal Isa and Sydney Soloski.

Instead, while warming up on vault during the meet, Eaker injured her ankle, suffering a Grade 2 sprain.

Initially, there were fears that she was done for the season. That was the first prognosis delivered to Farden and his staff.

Ultimately, it was determined that the sprain wasn’t season-ending, though Eaker would lose the majority of her freshman year.

To say that was difficult news is an understatement, and the subsequent rehab and recovery — while watching her teammates compete through the highs and lows of the season — weighed on Eaker.

“It definitely got really grueling, knowing that I couldn’t be up there with them and had to watch,” she said.

Recovery itself wasn’t easy. Eaker had escaped serious injury throughout much her career, making the long rehab process a relatively new experience.

“It took a longer time to feel like I could have a full range of motion and balance,” she said. “It was the dumbest stuff, too, like standing on one leg without falling over. I couldn’t do that for the longest time.”

And even now, after making her return to competition, Eaker isn’t 100% healthy.

“It is definitely a lot better,” she said. “There is some stiffness post competition and after some practices. It took a really really long time to get my balance back, and build the strength back in my calf and in my ankle.

“I can’t do everything yet, because I don’t have the ability. I’m just trying to build back the strength, but it feels good.”

New and improved

Eaker’s injury wasn’t without its benefits, crazy as that sounds.

The injury and subsequent rehab necessitated that she spend significant time with Farden, time that was used refine her routines and skill selection.

Eaker, who is currently available to compete on bars, beam and floor, has a new first pass on floor as a result.

“She will go front layout, front double full,” Farden said. “It is a dynamite first pass now, with even more bonus. It is going to be better for her in the end.

“Because of her injury she couldn’t punch backward as quickly as she could punch forward, just with the mechanics of the ankle, so we changed it.”

Her teammates have watched her evolution first hand, and Eaker has left them in awe of her ability to come back the way that she has.

“Obviously she is extremely talented,” Soloski said. “I don’t think that is a surprise to anyone. But it is really difficult to get hurt that first meet, miss the entire regular season and then be put in right before postseason. That takes a lot of mental toughness. She has done a phenomenal job, especially on beam, getting back to where she was.

“That kid is a competitor. She is tough. When it is competition time, her blinders go on and she is very focused on what she needs to do. There is not much that really affects her. It is always good to have kids like that on your team. She can go, she can hit, she can do her thing.”

With her perfect routine to close out regionals, Eaker announced to the world that she is back and not one to be overlooked.

And the Red Rocks are better off for it.

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