FORT WORTH, Texas — Just looking at final results, it would appear that Utah’s gymnastics program has plateaued.

After all, the Red Rocks finished third at the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships this week for the third straight season, falling to champion Oklahoma and runner-up Florida after finishing third behind those same programs in 2022 and behind champion Michigan and runner-up Oklahoma in 2021.

When Utah finished third in 2021, it felt like a major step forward for the program, and it was. Prior to that third-place finish, the Red Rocks placed seventh (2019), fifth (2018), fifth (2017) and ninth (2016) in the previous four seasons.

In 2022, third place maybe lost some of its shine, but was still a very positive finish.

The back-to-back third-place finishes illustrated that those Red Rocks were as consistently good as any group of Utah gymnasts since the teams of the late 2000s.

Moreover, the Red Rocks were losing only two routines that were competed in the national championship from the 2022 team, setting the stage for a special 2023 season.

As expected, the 2023 season was special.

Utah made history both in the Pac-12 (winning a third straight conference title and defeating UCLA four times in a single season) and in the postseason (the Red Rocks scored a 198 in three straight meets, which no Utah team had ever done before, in the regular season or postseason).

Utah also defeated Oklahoma in the postseason (NCAA semifinals), Maile O’Keefe set a new program record for perfect 10s on beam and was the NCAA all-around champion.

The list could continue, too.

But, Utah once again couldn’t finish higher than third.

Related
Another year, another third-place finish for Utah. Not for a lack of trying though
Are the Olympics the future for Grace McCallum, Amelie Morgan or Kara Eaker?

Plateauing, right?

Not if you ask the Red Rocks.

Standing on the floor of Dickies Arena Saturday, with the Sooners’ title celebration echoing in the background, multiple Utah gymnasts declared that the program is in as good a shape as ever.

“It is a stepping stone,” senior Abby Brenner said. “It is a process. This team, right now, there is a lot to be proud of. We left everything out there.”

Added senior Cristal Isa: “(Utah is moving forward) in all aspects. I think the chemistry is getting better, and so is the coaching staff and the support staff. The freshmen coming in are amazing.

“And with NIL, it is hard to see us not going forward. Even if it is inch by inch, they are starting from third place and moving up from there. It is only a matter of time.”

Sophomore Grace McCallum, fresh off a storybook return to competition, was perhaps the most optimistic.

“I think we keep growing each year,” she said. “Our team scores were higher than last year, so we keep improving little by little.

“I hope eventually by the end of my time here we will have a national championship title, but I have so much faith in this team that we can do amazing things. Just hoping that one of these years will be our year.”

There is reason to believe the Red Rocks.

While Utah is losing both Brenner and Isa — the duo combined to compete five routines in the national championship, never scoring lower than a 9.8750 — plus Jillian Hoffman, O’Keefe, Jaedyn Rucker and Abby Paulson each elected to come back to Utah for one more season.

McCallum should be fully healthy after missing half the season with a hyperextended knee — she is considering attempting to qualify for the Paris Olympics — and then there is the incoming freshman class.

Utah’s 2023 signing class is the No. 6-rated class in the country, per College Gym News, and includes four gymnasts — Olivia Kennedy, Elizabeth Gantner, Camie Winger and Ella Zirbes — the latter three being 5-star recruits.

When Utah inked Gantner, Winger and Zirbes, Utah head coach Tom Farden was nothing if not enthused, saying, “We are thrilled to have three incredible young women with outstanding talent join our Utah gymnastics family. ... Each of these future Red Rocks have shown that they thrive under pressure, and we believe they have what it takes to keep our program among the elite in NCCA gymnastics.” 

Gantner and Zirbes are former elites, while Winger had an exceptional career as a Level 10. Throw in Kennedy, who as of her signing with Utah was training a 10.0 valued vault, and Utah is adding four gymnasts capable of competing right away.

With additional standouts such as Kara Eaker, Amelie Morgan, Jaylene Gilstrap, Makenna Smith and Sage Thompson on the roster, Utah will have a team as talented, if not more so, next year.

It isn’t all guaranteed, though.

In the era of the transfer portal, there could be unexpected departures. Early retirements due to injury are also not unusual in college gymnastics.

Throw in uncertainty surrounding McCallum’s future — UCLA star Jordan Chiles isn’t returning to UCLA in order to train for the Olympics, and Auburn star Sunisa Lee retired from college gymnastics in order to focus on the Paris Games — and Utah could lose more gymnasts than expected.

There is also the fact that regardless of what roster Utah fields in 2024, it probably won’t be the national title favorite.

That honor will go to two-time defending champion Oklahoma, though Utah will likely be ranked No. 2 overall in preseason polls, with Florida losing superstar Trinity Thomas and at least three additional seniors.

“We are really on the precipice,” Farden said. “We’ll keep tinkering and trying to figure things out. ... We’ve got a nucleus of a lot of people who are extremely exceptional and know how to handle big meets, and then we are bringing in some really big talent.”

In the strictest possible terms, Utah plateaued in 2023 with its third-place finish, and the finish was a little bit of a let down given how the Red Rocks looked leading up to the national championship itself.

“It is a little disappointing because of how things were trending,” Isa said, “but we did our best and finished strong.”

But by the looks of things, Utah will be in a position to improve up its third-place finish next year, even if it is incrementally.