There was plenty for Tom Farden to be happy about following Utah gymnastics’ victory at the Pac-12 championships in mid-March.

The Red Rocks made history that night, becoming the only Pac-12 team to win three straight conference championships.

Farden could have talked about whatever he wanted to during a makeshift press conference in a small room on the lowest floor of the Maverik Center, but he chose to talk culture and character.

“What I really want people to realize is the actual character of the team,” Farden said. “This is where locker room matters. When you come to a meet like this and there are mistakes early in lineups, late in lineups and nobody quits. What separated us, what let us win this championships was our team chemistry, our locker room and nothing else.”

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Farden wasn’t the first person associated with Utah to talk about the team’s chemistry this season.

Following the Red Rocks Preview in mid-December, Maile O’Keefe talked about it too.

“Our team this year is so different even though we have a lot of the same routines,” O’Keefe said. “The energy is really fun, the team chemistry is really good. I feel good about this year.”

Time and again this season, gymnasts and coaches at Utah have spoken about this year feeling different. Being different.

The team is closer than ever, the program more united this year than anyone can recall.

“I think this has been my best year at Utah,” fifth-year senior Cristal Isa said.

All of which begs the question, what’s happened up on the hill?

A culture reset

Utah’s Cristal Isa celebrates scoring a perfect 10.0 on the balance beam during a gymnastics meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

No one will ever accuse Utah gymnastics of having a losing culture.

The Red Rocks are one of the most successful programs in all of NCAA sports, and arguably the most successful women’s gymnastics program ever, depending on what achievements you value most.

Utah has qualified for nationals a record 47 consecutive times — no other program comes close — and, despite not wining a national title since 1995, has won more national championships than any program save Georgia.

Through conference realignment and coaching changes, Utah has remained a true blue blood in the sports of gymnastics, a power on par with anyone else.

And yet last summer, Farden decided things needed to change.

Never satisfied, particularly after back-to-back third-place finishes at the national championships, Farden knew something need to be different with the program if the Red Rocks were to take another leap.

So he approached Utah’s seniors — Isa, O’Keefe, Abby Brenner, Jillian Hoffman, Abby Paulson and Jaedyn Rucker — and asked them what they wanted to be different in 2023.

He was sincere about it, too.

“He was really open to hearing our opinions,” Rucker said. “He basically asked us how do we want to change the culture.”

The Six Pack, as they’ve come to be known, weren’t shy with their opinions and provided many suggestions.

Boiled down to the simplest ideas, the Red Rocks decided they needed to rediscover their love for the sport and their trust for one another.

Forgive and forget

Kara Eaker does her beam routine during the University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics preview in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Kara Eaker does her beam routine 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

Competitiveness isn’t lacking at Utah. Each and every gymnast at the U. has been highly successful in their gymnastics careers. Many have won national championships at the club or NCAA level, and some have competed at the Olympic level and medaled.

As they tell it, that success, combined with the legacy of Utah gymnastics, had begun to wear on the gymnasts, though.

The love that they had for the sport had withered away just a bit in recent seasons, as they felt pressure to not make mistakes. Many felt their value lay only in their ability to do good gymnastics.

That pressure was sometimes apparent in interactions with teammates.

“Some girls weren’t as supportive,” sophomore Grace McCallum said, “or blamed things on you, saying ‘You should have done this, or you should have done that.’”

Added Isa: “In the years past, things have been so outcome based and there has been so much pressure on what we do in practice and how we do at the meets.”

So what the Six Pack wanted to change the most was to allow for mistakes. To allow gymnasts to be human and know that their value lay in who they are, not in what they do in practice or on the competition floor.

“We wanted acknowledgement and acceptance of us as people, rather than as a gymnasts,” Rucker said. “We talked and we talk a lot about trusting each other and believing each other, but way beyond what we can do in the gym.”

A safe place

Jaedyn Rucker reacts to seeing her score of a perfect 10.0 on the vault during a gymnastics meet against Cal at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When the Six Pack presented their ideas to the greater Utah team, acceptance was immediate.

Who doesn’t want to be supported through good and bad times, after all?

The seniors put their ideas into action — it wasn’t just a thought exercise — and the reviews have been nothing but positive.

Utah’s gymnasts feel closer to this team than any previous iteration. They feel more supported than they ever have.

Said junior Alani Sabado: “With the team, I feel like there is more of an emotional connection. You aren’t just competing to compete for Utah gymnastics. You are competing for the girls. That is what this team feels like. I don’t know how to explain it. This is the deepest connection I’ve had with some of the girls.”

Said freshman Makenna Smith: “Having a team is amazing and just the support. I’ve been amazed with much they want to be with me all the time.”

Said sophomore Kara Eaker: “I don’t know if this is because last year I was a freshman, but I feel like the upperclassmen were separate from the rest of the team. This year, you can go to any one of (the seniors) if you have a problem or even if you don’t have a problem and just have something to say. It feels like you can always go to someone and feel involved with the team.”

Said sophomore Amelie Morgan: “I feel like the team is really really close. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it definitely feels different. ... I just feel closer to everyone. I know people better. I feel like everyone is really, they really care about each other. They care about people’s lives outside and inside of the gym.”

Isa and Brenner came into this season expecting it to be something of a struggle — both are fifth-year seniors at the very tail end of lifelong careers. This year has been the polar opposite of their expectations, however, which they both credit to the support of the team.

“I think it has gone surprisingly well,” Isa said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be well-received by the team and the community, asking for another year. But now that I’m here, I just feel really embraced. The team has really done well with this group of girls. I wasn’t sure all of us would mesh, but we are all so cohesive and the perfect set of personalities to be successful this season.”

Added Brenner: “Coming from training (this summer), I was like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ Especially in the middle of preseason, it gets really, really hard, but I feel like the girls — and I know other girls on the team have said this culture is so different than anything before — but really it is so different and we have bonded so well together that it hasn’t been hard.”

Inspiration from Ann Arbor

Michigan’s Gabby Wilson celebrates after finishing her floor routine during the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, April 17, 2021. | Matt Strasen, Associated Press

The culture at Utah has been a pleasant surprise for Brenner, a graduate transfer from Michigan. Not because she expected anything bad upon her arrival in Utah, but because it is pretty similar to what she experienced at Michigan when the Wolverines won the national title in 2021.

That Wolverines team surprised many with their run to the title and, according to Brenner, they did so because of their belief in each other.

“I think (the culture at Michigan) was very similar to this,” she said. “I think one of our secret weapons when we won the national championship was how close the girls were. We were in our own little bubble and when we went out at nationals in 2021 we were doing it for us. We were genuinely excited for each and every performance and I think that is what we are channeling here, now.

“The trust that we have, that is our key word this year. Cristal said this and it rang true for me, ‘It is easy to have confidence when you have someone in your corner always.’ I think that is really honestly our entire team. We feel so confident because whenever someone salutes, you know that you have everyone in your corner. No matter what the outcome, good or bad. Everyone is here for each other.”

Why did former Michigan All-American Abby Brenner transfer to Utah?

Brenner deserves some serious credit for some of the change in culture at Utah and she has received it.

O’Keefe, Rucker and Isa have all singled her out at various times this year, for her enthusiasm, positivity and effusiveness.

“Brenner has been amazing,” Isa said. “She is energy. Sometimes it is hard to find energy when we are sad, but she is always energy even when she’s having a bad day.”

Credit to the Six Pack

Utah’s Abby Paulson competes on the balance beam during a gymnastics meet against Cal at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In truth, Utah’s entire senior class has been instrumental in remaking the team’s culture this season.

“I think the amount of support from our seniors is very different,” McCallum said. “You can feel the amount of support they have for each and every person. ... You can feel how genuine it is. You know it is real support and they want what is best for you.”

It helps that with six unique voices, no gymnast on the team has felt alone or unsupported.

“I think having six leaders changed things because it gives you a lot of more personalities and differences in our leadership,” O’Keefe said. “People feel more comfortable going to one person more than the other and you don’t have this awkward place where no one wants to go to just one of two people and that trickles down the line. I feel like that has definitely helped our culture a lot.”

It is easy to argue that the culture shift has succeeded.

Look no further than Utah’s win at the Pac-12 championships or successive hard-fought victories in the semifinals and final of the Los Angeles Regional.

Following Utah’s win over UCLA, Missouri and Washington in the Los Angeles Regional Final, Farden noted, once again, that “this team has an excellent chemistry and synergy. They show up and want to compete. That is pretty cool to see.”

Utah has weathered major injuries this season — to McCallum specifically, but also Lucy Stanhope, Eaker and Hoffman — plus plenty of inconsistent gymnastics, and will still enter the NCAA gymnastics championships as one of, if not the best bet, to unseat Oklahoma as national champion.

Buoyed by their new culture, the Red Rocks had all the confidence in the world that they would qualify to nationals again.

“We didn’t have a doubt in our mind that we were going to make it,” Morgan said. “We should be there.”

Supported more than ever by 14 other gymnasts, odds are no Red Rock will be doubting themselves in Fort Worth, Texas, either.