How Taylor Swift helped Utah gymnast Abby Paulson turn her season around
A now three-time regular-season All-American, Paulson wasn’t herself for half the season, but a little Taylor Swift changed everything.
Abby Paulson stood at the end of the balance beam, waiting to salute the judges.
The expression on her face was her usual one, filled with a determination and focus almost unmatched by anyone on Utah’s fourth-ranked gymnastics team.
She was a little fidgety, shifting her weight while checking the amount of chalk on her feet, all the while keeping her eyes focused on the judges, those powerful arbiters of the sport, awaiting the signal that she could begin her routine.
Around her, inside the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State fans were screaming in support of their respective teams. A ‘Let’s go Beavers’ chant rang out, just before floor music began to echo throughout the arena.
It was the evening session of the Pac-12 championships, the conference title was on the line and there were distractions aplenty.
The moment Paulson mounted the beam, though, everything faded away. All she heard was a simple but pleasing melody, with lyrics that she knew by heart.
“I was ridin’ shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car. He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel, the other on my heart. I look around, turn the radio down, he says, ‘Baby, is something wrong?’ I say, ‘Nothing, I was just thinking how we don’t have a song.’”
With Taylor Swift’s 2007 hit single “Our Song” playing in her head, Paulson did what Red Rocks fans have grown accustomed to in her three years at Utah.
She excelled on the beam, performing a nearly flawless routine that earned her a season-best 9.975 and gave her the Pac-12 beam title.
Since mid-February, Paulson has been the elite, All-American-caliber gymnast that Red Rocks fans are familiar with, the gymnast she was at the Pac-12 championships and most recently at the NCAA Seattle Regional final when her leadoff floor routine set the tone for Utah’s best postseason meet in program history.
Since Utah lost to Cal on Feb. 12, Paulson hasn’t had a routine — on any event — score lower than a 9.80.
That is seven competitions and 18 routines. Eleven of those 18 routines went for a 9.875 or better, with eight breaking the 9.90 barrier.
Standing in stark contrast, though, are Paulson’s performances in six meets to start the season. In 12 total routines, Paulson scored a 9.775 or lower four times. She broke the 9.90 barrier five times, but a third of her routines were poor enough that Utah had to throw them out.
“And he says, ‘Our song is the slamming screen door, sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window. When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow, ’cause it’s late and your mama don’t know. Our song is the way you laugh, the first date: ‘Man, I didn’t kiss her, and I should have.’ And when I got home, ’fore I said ‘Amen,’ asking God if he could play it again.”
Simply put, she wasn’t Abby Paulson, the three-time regular-season All-American with the five-year international elite career and a stint on the U.S. national team on her resume, the consistent star Utah had relied upon ever since she’d arrived in Salt Lake City ahead of the 2020 season.
So what changed?
Paulson is the first to admit the opening half of the season didn’t go the way she wanted it to. She describes it as “rocky,” among other things.
“It was kind of up-and-down,” she said. “I had some good routines and some not so good.”
There were reasons for that.
Paulson was dealing with some aches and pains early in the year, issues that were debilitating enough that Utah had to alter her training, but not significant enough to keep her out of competition.
“She was slowed a little bit by some nagging things,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “Physically that was happening to her and that slowed her numbers and volume a little bit.
“We had to be more cautious. There is a time where you have to train them to just stay on the equipment, and there can be a variance with the volume you have to prescribe.”
“I was walkin’ up the front porch steps after everything that day had gone all wrong and been trampled on and lost and thrown away. Got to the hallway, well on my way, to my lovin’ bed. I almost didn’t notice all the roses and the note that said.”
Paulson wasn’t exactly staying on the equipment, though. She fell on beam, her signature event.
That’s why she was loath to blame her inconsistency on anything physical, real as those nagging ailments were. She didn’t even mention them. For her, her struggles were mental.
Paulson is an intense person. Farden describes her as being almost the quintessential Type A personality.
“Abby is as Type A as they come,” he said. “She cares about everything.”
Watch Paulson after any less-than-stellar routine, and you can see it written all over her face. She expects to be the best and will accept nothing less.
That was the problem.
Given her history and personal expectations, with every suboptimal performance, Paulson got more and more in her head. And the more in her head she got, the more she struggled.
“I’m a big over-thinker,” she said. “My freshman year I got a 10 and I didn’t try to put pressure on myself to do that again, but I think there was some internal pressure where I’d think, ‘You’ve done this before, why can’t you do it again?’”
“Our song is the slamming screen door, sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window. When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow, ’cause it’s late and your mama don’t know. Our song is the way you laugh, the first date: ‘Man, I didn’t kiss her and I should have.’ And when I got home, ’fore I said ‘Amen,’ asking God if he could play it again.”
During her routines, particularly on beam, Paulson would think too much about the skills she needed to do before she did them, then she’d get ahead of herself and sometimes lose her way.
That was magnified when, after the season-opening Best of Utah competition, she switched back to the beam routine she’d done as a freshman, the one she had competed to earn her perfect 10.
During the offseason, Paulson and Utah assistant coach Carly Dockendorf had worked on a new routine that included a bad leg, split leap as part of the dismount and a different leap pass that incorporated a switch leap to a Sissone.
After she was deducted a tenth of a point for the amplitude on her switch leap at the Best of Utah, though, Paulson switched back to her original routine.
It was the right move in the end, but the internal pressure just continued to build.
“She was really tight at the beginning of the season, ’cause I think she had these expectations of herself,” Utah senior Sydney Soloskisaid.
“Abby wanted to be the rock-solid beam star that she had been before, but those perfect routines happen when you are not trying to be that person. She was really just trying way too hard.”
“I’ve heard every album, listened to the radio. Waited for something to come along that was as good as our song ...”
It was Dockendorf who found the solution.
It was understood that Utah needed Paulson to change her focus during competition. The Utes needed her to relax and enjoy both the moment and competition itself, rather than force perfection.
How to do that was the issue, until Dockendorf suggested that Paulson sing Taylor Swift in her head while competing.
A self described “big” Swiftie, Paulson listens to Swift regularly. If not every day, close to it.
“Most days during the week I’m listening to Taylor Swift,” she said with a laugh.
If anything could get Paulson out of her own head, it would be Swift, and that is exactly what has occurred.
Since she started singing ‘Our Song’ to herself during every beam routine — Paulson settled on that particular song because “it is a simple song and I have known every word to it for the last 15 years, ever since it came out,” she said — she hasn’t scored lower than a 9.875 on beam, and recorded back-to-back 9.975s against LSU and at the Pac-12 championships.
“‘Cause our song is the slamming screen door, sneakin’ out late, tapping on his window. When we’re on the phone and he talks real slow, ’cause it’s late and his mama don’t know. Our song is the way he laughs, the first date: ‘Man, I didn’t kiss him, and I should have.’ And when I got home, ’fore I said ‘Amen,’ askin’ God if he could play it again. Play it again, oh yeah, oh, oh yeah.”
“Now that I do that, I’m not thinking about my skills and trying to be perfect,” Paulson said. “I think that has really helped.”
Paulson’s return to form has only helped Utah and her value was on display for all to see at the Seattle Regional.
After tweaking her back during the running portion of warmups before regional semifinal, Paulson missed the first of two meets that Utah competed in.
The Red Rocks survived the first one without her, but missed her presence on floor in particular.
Out of an abundance of caution, Paulson only competed on floor in the regional final, but led off the meet with a 9.90 that gave the team the energy it lacked the meet prior.
“She brings stability and familiarity,” Farden said. “We started the regional final with her 9.90 and were off and running.”
“I was ridin’ shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car. I grabbed a pen and an old napkin and I wrote down our song.”
As of Friday, Paulson has returned to training and “is progressing nicely,” per a university spokesperson.
Utah will need Paulson at her best when the Red Rocks start competition Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, at the NCAA gymnastics championships.
Utah needs a top two finish to advance to the national final, meaning the the Red Rocks have to beat two of No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Minnesota.
Having Paulson at her best will make that task easier. And if the last half of the season has been any indication, she will be, as long as “Our Song” echoes in her head.
Correction: The article originally stated that Taylor Swift’s single ‘Our Song’ was released in 2010. It was released as a single in 2007, and originally debuted on her first studio album ‘Taylor Swift’ in 2006.