Sidled up alongside a balance beam inside the increasingly spacious Dumke Gymnastics Center on the campus of the University of Utah, Abby Brenner looked at ease. Comfortable. At home even.

It was a strange sight, or would have been for countless NCAA women’s gymnastics fans.

For four years previous, Brenner had been a Michigan Wolverine, and not just any Wolverine. Brenner was a key contributor during one of the greatest eras of Michigan gymnastics history, which included the program’s first national championship.

A regular-season All-American and three-time All-Big Ten performer, Brenner’s name was almost synonymous with Michigan, alongside the likes of Natalie Wojcik, Gabby Wilson, Abby Heiskell and Sierra Brooks.

And yet there Brenner was, inside the home of Utah gymnastics — the house that Greg Marsden built — looking like she’d always been there. Like she belonged.

Life in the transfer portal

Michigan gymnast Abby Brenner during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Mich. | Rick Osentoski, Associated Press

It was anything but a forgone conclusion that Brenner was going to end up at Utah. It wasn’t even guaranteed that she would transfer from Michigan or take advantage of the fifth year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to COVID-19 upending the 2020 season.

But in October 2021, Brenner entered her name into the NCAA transfer portal. The 2022 gymnastics season hadn’t even started yet — Michigan would go on to advance to the semifinals of the national championships in Fort Worth, Texas, while Utah would ultimately finish third behind Oklahoma and Florida in the national final.

“I wanted to go in the portal early so people knew that I was interested in looking other places,” she said.

It was more of an exploratory move than anything else.

At the time, Brenner still didn’t know if she actually wanted to compete for a fifth year. And quite frankly, she didn’t know if any program would want her in the event she did decide she wanted to continue competing.

“I was honestly pretty nervous,” she said. “I didn’t know if people were going to want to recruit a fifth year (gymnast). I thought, ‘Am I washed up or not?’”

Brenner hadn’t been injury free at Michigan. One month into the 2021 season — the Wolverines’ national championship-winning campaign — she tore her calf, upending nearly all the momentum she had after earning All-America status in 2020.

When she entered the transfer portal, a bounceback 2022 season hadn’t happened yet.

To her surprise, though, emails from coaches flooded in.

“It was kind of crazy,” Brenner said. “Most of it was through email, almost all of it, unless my (club) coaches gave them my number. ... It really kicked in in February. Coaches were starting to make their plans for the next year. Then in March there was a little more.”

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One of the coaches who reached out early on was Utah head coach Tom Farden.

Farden and Brenner’s old club coach Mike Hunger are good friends (Hunger’s daughter Breanna Hughes competed for the Utes), and Hunger reached out on Brenner’s behalf as soon as she entered the portal.

Farden had interest in bringing Brenner to Salt Lake City, but recruiting in the transfer portal was a different experience for him.

“I was always intrigued by her,” he said. “She came here and did camps. I got to know her and her family. ... I spoke to her throughout the year, but always kept a distance. I didn’t want to be overbearing. I wanted to let her focus on Michigan.

“I could have recruited the heck out of her and been full court press on everything or I could let her finish strong with school and recruit her from a distance. I chose the latter, which isn’t my style.”

It was what Brenner was looking for, though.

“I didn’t want to take any recruiting visits or make any decisions while I was still at Michigan,” she said. “I really wanted to give it my all throughout the season. I just put my name out there, opened up some conversations, but didn’t do any serious looking or decision making until after nationals.”

Farden didn’t waste time after nationals, which worked out for him since Brenner had decided during the postseason she indeed wanted to compete a fifth year.

“He texted me right away and asked to set up a call,” Brenner said. “Tom Farden being the way he is, he was so adamant. He wanted it to happen tomorrow. He said, ‘I am free from this time on,’ and he called right on the time.”

“Obviously we wanted her,” Farden said.

The allure of Utah gymnastics

Farden was quick to get Brenner to Salt Lake City for a visit, and he enlisted the help of Abby Paulson and Jaylene Gilstrap, former club teammates of Brenner’s in Minnesota and Texas, respectively, once she arrived in town.

Those relationships helped seal the deal for Utah, but Brenner’s initial interest in the program came down to coaching and marketing.

Brenner’s purpose in leaving Michigan was to expose herself to another gymnastics program and conference.

She dreams of coaching college gymnastics one day and eventually transitioning into college administration — she specifically mentioned a goal of becoming an athletic director — and wanted to get a different perspective after four years in Ann Arbor under Bev Plocki.

“I knew that having the extra year was a great opportunity to see inside another program and conference,” Brenner said. “I wanted to see another program not through a volunteer coach’s eyes, but through an athlete’s eyes.”

Utah’s coaching staff has given her plenty to think about.

“I really enjoy how articulate their programming is. They really have a plan, and it is about moving everyone forward as a team,” Brenner said. “The coaches are great. They are young, fired up and not afraid to talk about winning a national championship, which I love. 

“That is my goal here. I’ve done it and I really appreciate it. I love that they are fired up and ready to go.”

As appealing as the Red Rocks’ coaching staff was, the marketing machine that is Utah gymnastics was eye-opening for Brenner and perhaps an even bigger pull.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in sports marketing from Michigan, and marketing at Utah is as big an emphasis as the gymnastics itself.

“I care as much about marketing as I do about winning,” Farden said. “Marketing is the lifeblood of our program. It is as important as recruiting. I’m constantly recruiting to get people into our stands and she was fascinated by that whole concept. You look at how this program was set up, it is a marketing machine.

“To see a staff work that hard at marketing and see a university willing to support us at that level — with a marketing budget, (and staff) MJ (Misty Jade Carlson), Hailee (Corry) and Mady (White) — she was fascinated that we had all of these resources and support — passionate support — at our disposal.”

“It is so insane to see all the marketing that goes into it and how much this community loves gymnastics,” Brenner said. “It was a perfect fit.”

Reunited and it feels so good

Abby Brenner, left, hugs Jillian Hoffman after Hoffman’s vault during the University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics preview at the Huntsman Center Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What really sold Brenner on Utah, though, were the pre-established relationships she had with Paulson, Gilstrap and to a lesser extent, Grace McCallum.

All three Red Rocks had been club teammates with Brenner, either at Twin City Twisters in Minnesota or Metroplex Gymnastics in Texas.

Paulson and Brenner’s relationship goes back to when the pair were in the TOPS gymnastics program together as 4-year-olds, where they instantly became the best of friends due to their shared name.

“When you are four, you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have the same name. I’m Abby and you’re Abby. The Abbys have to share a beam,’” Paulson said with a laugh.

The duo separated for a time when Brenner switched gyms, but she would eventually return to Twin City Twisters and she and Paulson — and briefly McCallum — competed in the same Elite group.

“We were pretty close,” Paulson said. “We grew up together, trained together. We go way back.”

When she was a junior in high school, Brenner moved to Texas, and it was there she would become acquainted with Gilstrap.

“I remember her first day (at Metroplex),” Gilstrap said. “She was just so joyful. She is a very people person, very happy. Normally when girls came in they were very shy and reserved because our club was a very competitive club. It is a top notch club that is hard to get into it, so girls were always very nervous when they came in and didn’t speak.

“Not Abby. Abby just came in like it was her old club gym and was a bundle of joy. ... She brought the fun to gymnastics.”

Paulson and Gilstrap hadn’t regularly interacted with Brenner for years, though Paulson and Brenner had talked during the 2022 season.

So there were a few nerves when Farden asked Paulson and Gilstrap to take Brenner out to lunch and on a hike on her official visit.

“I was very excited because it had been a long time since I had seen her,” Gilstrap said.

The former teammates clicked immediately, though.

“She is one of those people you can go many years without seeing and it is still the same,” Gilstrap said. “She is the same person. It felt like I saw her yesterday.”

For Brenner, her relationships with Paulson and Gilstrap made everything easier. They made Utah the perfect transfer destination.

“They impacted it a lot. I knew coming into a completely different program and team was going to be a big transition no matter what,” she said. “I was kind of nervous at first, but then we clicked, almost like no time had passed. And I just thought, ‘This would be the perfect transition for me.’”

What has Abby Brenner brought to Utah?

Abby Brenner motions for the crowd to cheer during the University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics preview at the Huntsman Center Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As perfect a fit as Utah is for Brenner, she has been a revelation for the Red Rocks.

On the competition floor, Brenner is an elite vaulter — her career high of 9.975 is better than what all but one current Red Rock (Jaedyn Rucker) has scored at Utah — who is more than capable of competing every week on multiple events.

“She has the opportunity to help us on vault, bars and floor,” Farden said. “She has great power. She has catlike reflexes. She is good in the air and she is showy. She has a good flair, which is always needed.”

With Brenner on board, Utah’s two weakest events in recent years — vault and bars — have the potential to be national title worthy.

“Her gymnastics speaks volumes for what she can do and bring,” Farden said.

Her impact goes well beyond her gymnastics, though.

Following the Red Rocks Preview in mid-December, Maile O’Keefe singled out Brenner for her impact on Utah’s team culture.

“We have a lot of energy, and I think a lot of that comes from Abby, our fifth-year (transfer) from Michigan,” O’Keefe said. “She is just a ball of energy, super energetic and positive. I think that helps us a lot.”

Brenner’s attitude is contagious and her experience benefits the whole team, Farden said.

“Equally as important (to me) was her personality, her vibrance and confidence,” he said. “Who she is. She is confident. She has a spark and experience and she got immediate respect from the other athletes, because she has actually been on a team that has won a national championship.

“She brings a perspective. She says things like “We didn’t really talk about it, we didn’t do this or that.” This is someone who did it and our girls perk up because they want to do that. That is something they aspire to. To me, that was invaluable.”

While at the time it was devastating, Brenner’s calf injury helped her become the leader she is today.

Taking a page from Abby Wambach (literally from the former USWNT star’s book, “WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game”), Brenner became a behind-the-scenes supporter/leader for the Wolverines during their run to the national championship and remains that person today, even with her return to competition.

“I really wanted to embrace that role,” she said. “Becoming the biggest supporter, especially with those girls who took my spot. Helping motivate them. Really embracing that role really helped me get through my injury. Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to be in the forefront, you can be in the background.”

Brenner will be in both the forefront and the background for Utah this year, to the Utes benefit and hopefully Brenner’s, too.

“She is just the most welcoming, nice girl you will meet,” McCallum said. “It is nice to be with her again and her positive energy in the gym is just so nice to have.”