The University of Utah has engaged an outside agency to review its nationally acclaimed gymnastics program after former gymnasts and parents allege head coach Tom Farden verbally and emotionally abused and physically intimidated members of the team.

The university has turned to the Kansas City-based law firm Husch Blackwell to conduct the review, and several athletes, their parents and Utah gymnastics staffers — current and former — have been interviewed as part of the investigation, the Deseret News has learned. The firm specializes in issues facing colleges and universities, including conducting independent investigations and culture and climate reviews of sport programs.

Gymnasts and parents reported the alleged abuse to university administrators and campus victim advocates. The former gymnasts are not alleging sexual abuse of any kind, but maintain that Farden verbally and emotionally demeaned them.

According to five former Red Rocks — as Utah team members are called — mothers of four gymnasts and two former staff members who worked with Farden during his 23-year collegiate coaching career, all of whom spoke with the Deseret News on the condition their names not be used, Farden’s alleged behaviors as a head coach include:

  • Verbal degradation and public shaming, wherein Farden would single out and demean gymnasts, both in practices and meets, demoralizing athletes and causing feelings of worthlessness.
  • Creating an environment where gymnasts, including those under age 18, were isolated from family and pressured to refrain from any communication outside the program.
  • Lack of concern or interest in gymnasts’ physical and emotional well-being, be it after serious injuries, illness or mental and emotional issues.
  • Creating an environment that rewards and encourages gymnasts to report on their teammates’ lives inside and outside the sport.
  • Physical intimidation, including throwing objects in the gym and forcefully handling equipment, making some gymnasts feel generally unsafe.

Though she competed at a high level, receiving All-Pac-12 and All-America honors, one former Red Rock said Farden told her she was a failure, lazy, a waste and that she didn’t bring value to the team.

“You knew, no matter what you had done, Tom would take it and blow it up and it would be your fault because you’re flawed as a person, not because you made one little mistake or (were) having a hard day,” she said.

Farden, she said, focused only on winning, no matter how many toes he had to step on. “Throughout my time as a gymnast there, all I felt like was a thing, a business asset,” she said. “If you’re doing stuff that doesn’t look good for this business that he’s running, then he thinks you’re irrelevant.”

Citing the ongoing review, university officials declined to answer questions or provide details about the allegations but did issue a statement.

“The well-being and safety of our student-athletes are of the utmost importance to the university and the athletics department, and we are committed to our student-athletes feeling respected, supported and safe. When issues are brought to our attention, it is our practice to conduct a thorough review to ensure that our practices and policies are being followed. I can confirm that an outside independent review of our gymnastics program has been underway,” said Christopher Nelson, chief university relations officer.

Farden, through his agent, declined an interview request to discuss the allegations.

Utah’s head coach Tom Farden leads the team in a chant after winning the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships.
Utah’s head coach Tom Farden leads the team in a chant after winning the Pac-12 championships at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The Deseret News also interviewed a number of former gymnasts, including Sydney Soloski and Alexia Burch and others who asked that their names not be used as well as now-retired longtime coaches Greg and Megan Marsden, who defended Farden and praised his coaching style. The Deseret News also sought through the university athletics department to interview current team members but was told they wouldn’t be made available because of the ongoing review.

Administrators said the report from the investigation would be shared publicly after the university receives it.

Farden joined the Red Rocks as an assistant coach ahead of the 2011 season. In 2016, he and Megan Marsden were named co-head coaches, following the retirement of Greg Marsden. Farden became the sole head coach in 2020 after Megan Marsden retired.

The Marsdens say the allegations leveled at Farden “don’t make any sense” and in no way reflect who he is as a coach or a person. They said they never saw him demean, embarrass or make gymnasts miserable during their time together.

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“He is as professional as they come and he is one of the best coaches out there in the sport of women’s gymnastics. He’s one of the best spotters. He’s one of the best technical coaches and he cares about the athletes,” Megan Marsden said.

Though she hasn’t coached with Farden the past four years, she said she doesn’t believe he has changed his style and his body of work “speaks volumes.”

“I don’t think he’s become an abusive coach,” Megan Marsden said.

The Marsdens attribute the allegations to “disgruntled” gymnasts and parents, saying athletes don’t always have “storybook” careers and become stars or don’t meet the high expectations of their parents.

“I hope they know what they’re doing because if it’s not truth, that scares me. I feel like I know the true Tom because of my years with him in every situation, with athletes who weren’t happy, with athletes who were injured, with athletes doing great, and with athletes with mental illness. We went through the whole gamut in nine years,” Megan Marsden said.

The University of Utah’s student-athlete wellness policy requires coaches, among other things, to “act ethically with good judgment, discretion and integrity both on and off the job ... and treat all persons with courtesy, friendliness and respect for their personal dignity.”

Emotional and verbal abuse are “expressly prohibited” under the policy, which says abuse can include when a coach “excessively” singles out an athlete through negative interactions or personal attacks, uses degrading language, devalues a person or ignores an athlete.

The gym in the Dumke Gymnastics Center is pictured during a ribbon-cutting event at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Pushing for perfection

Utah has long been a premier women’s college gymnastics program, although it hasn’t won a national championship since 1995. Fan support of the program is robust, as Utah regularly fills the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center and holds the NCAA record for season average attendance (15,273 — set in 2020).

Farden was named Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year at the end of his first season. He has compiled a 165-46-1 record as co-head coach and head coach, including five Pac-12 titles and three consecutive third-place finishes in the NCAA championships. He also coached at Southeast Missouri State and Arkansas.

He is a demanding coach known for being loud and intense.

“Everybody has a style, and I think your style fits your personality. If my volume goes up because of encouragement and intensity, that‘s probably a direct reflection of passion — I would hope that’s what people see it as,” Farden told the Deseret News after being named co-head coach in 2016.

One former All-American said Farden’s passion is needed in the sport.

“He is very loud, but not in a bad way. Like loud and vocal. I remember every day he’d come into practice and you’d walk in the door and he would start clapping really loud,” she said. “He was vocal about what he wanted to see, what he wanted to accomplish.”

But other former Red Rocks say Farden controls the team with intimidation and fear, even describing the environment as “toxic.” He demanded the gymnasts be “perfect in every way” on and off the mat, and if they’re not, one said, “he sees that as we’re weak people.”

Gymnasts hospitalized

The Deseret News has learned that two Utah gymnasts were hospitalized for more than a week at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute to address mental health concerns and suicidal thoughts. Both hospital stays came toward or at the end of a gymnastics season.

“During my time on the team, I was cussed at, had things thrown at me and was emotionally abused by Tom Farden to the point of being so broken down I wanted to take my own life,” one former All-American gymnast wrote to a student-athlete advocate.

The gymnast said the coach treated her as a “pawn” at the expense of her life. “A life should never be an expense of winning, and I’m afraid that line is all too close,” she wrote.

Parents and gymnasts allege that Farden has thrown objects at gymnasts, including a cellphone and a bars scraper, a metal tool used to scrape excess chalk from the uneven bars, in addition to physically intimidating team members.

Examples of physical intimidation include sprinting across the gym in a rage directly at individual gymnasts or slamming equipment such as mats on the ground aggressively in close proximity to gymnasts.

“When he was throwing a temper tantrum you’d know,” said one gymnast. “He would be super aggressive and throw things while speaking in a loud noise so that everyone knew that he was pissed off.”

People tour the Dumke Gymnastics Center during a ribbon-cutting event at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Allegations of playing favorites

Gymnasts and coaches say Farden was quick to blame losses, a rare occurrence at Utah, on individual gymnasts.

“He would call out single people in front of everyone and talk about how bad they messed up and how they need to get their (expletive) together,” a gymnast said. But, she said, the stars on the squad were never singled out even if they didn’t perform well, which created division among team members.

“It was never we win as a team and lose as a team. It was we win as a team, and we lose because of one person,” she continued. “And it’s kind of sad, because if it was one person’s fault, but if Tom liked that person, then it’s not their fault.”

Said a former assistant coach who worked with Farden before he came to Utah: “He (Farden) absolutely had his favorite. There were definitely some gymnasts he was harder on but he had his favorite and he treated them like it.”

Others, however, say that when Farden singled them out, it was usually, if not always, constructive.

“There was a specific reason for it. When he approached me, I was very aware that I wasn’t doing my best job. And so he’d be like, ‘Come on, you can do this, let’s get going.’ It wasn’t he’s being mean to me just to be mean,” one Utah gymnast said.

Other gymnasts noted as well that Farden has to strike a difficult balance between doing what it takes to win and satisfying the wants and needs of his gymnasts.

“I would go to bat for that man and say that he cares so much about his athletes. But he also has a fine line to toe with, you know, being a professional and delivering results while still caring. I think that he toes that line very well,” Soloski said.

Utah gymnastics head coach Tom Farden holds the scissors during a ribbon-cutting event for the Dumke Gymnastics Center’s expansion.
Utah gymnastics head coach Tom Farden holds the scissors during a ribbon-cutting event for the Dumke Gymnastics Center’s expansion at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Offseason training and scholarships

Some gymnasts allege Farden flouted NCAA rules regarding voluntary offseason training sessions and scholarships.

Voluntary offseason training, they say, hasn’t always been treated as voluntary at Utah under Farden, which would be a violation of NCAA rules if found to be true.

A gymnast said Farden is apprised as to who attends “voluntary training time,” which is expressly prohibited by the NCAA. He allegedly berates gymnasts who miss voluntary practice, which is at odds with the section of the rule that states “neither the institution nor any athletics department staff member may require the student-athlete to participate in the activity at any time.”

Gymnasts and parents also accused Farden of playing fast and loose with NCAA scholarship rules.

Farden led some gymnasts to believe that they must give up their scholarship due to poor athletic performance, which might include not making lineups for meets, in order to continue competing for the team, they said. He handed out ultimatums along the lines of telling scholarship athletes to transfer, retire or become a student manager or a walk-on, according to gymnasts.

A Pac-12 spokesman told the Deseret News that the conference and NCAA rules prohibit Division I schools from canceling an athlete’s financial aid for unsatisfactory athletic performance during their four years of eligibility.

Some gymnasts and parents also alleged that Farden tried on multiple occasions to take scholarships away from injured gymnasts, sometimes even before they appeared in a single meet for the Utes. Many of those gymnasts subsequently went on to star for the Red Rocks.

One parent recalled that Farden demanded that her daughter, fresh off an injury that needed corrective surgery and had an estimated recovery time of nearly a year, learn certain skills within a set period of time — shorter than the accepted recovery window — or she’d lose her scholarship.

“He would single out girls and it was never, ‘You’re having a rough day, let’s try again tomorrow.’ It was, ‘Do you want to lose your scholarship? You don’t deserve to be here,’” one gymnast said.

The gymnast described a practice where she was having a hard time landing a dismount on bars but Farden made her do the skill over and over to the point she was in tears. “I’m crying and he tells me that I should try again when I don’t look like a snot face. Then he added, ‘Do you need time in the locker room to go compose yourself because this is embarrassing.’”

Emotional fallout

Former gymnasts said that Farden has a way of making people feel incapable and without worth, often doing so in front of the rest of the team. At least two gymnasts said they had to tune the coach out in order to compete.

“If I was ever having a hard day I would just get screamed at and yelled at,” said one gymnast. “He would say things like, ‘We don’t bring things from the outside world into the gym,’ even though you are a whole person who deserves to feel whole-person emotions.”

It’s not just gymnasts who say that Farden got in their face.

“He would trap you in his office and just berate you. You just felt so small,” the former assistant coach said. “He just has a way of making you feel like you are in the wrong. Like you are small. You don’t bow to his every whim and do exactly what he says then you are worthless.”

Multiple other former Utah gymnasts contacted by the Deseret News declined to share their stories, expressing a desire to heal, not feeling ready to relive their experiences.

“I am aware of the investigation going on, and understand that to create change stories must be heard,” said one former gymnast. “With that being said, I am working through the process of healing from my experiences ... so as of right now I don’t feel that I am ready to share my story.” 

One gymnast who spoke with the Deseret News did not allege abuse of any kind, but described incidents that she believed were illustrative of verbal degradation. The coach, she said, had good intentions but didn’t always express them in a positive way.

“Technical wise, he is really great at what he does, but I feel like delivery can just not go the way it’s supposed to go,” she said. “I had the finger pointed at me and he screamed in my face. I remember being singled out. It wasn’t like traumatizing bad, but it still happened.”

Other gymnasts were quick to praise Farden, describing him as an elite head coach who is knowledgeable, innovative and an expert on college gymnastics.

“But it is not his job as a coach to make sure that everyone gets what they think they deserve. He is very good at doing what’s best for the team, and sometimes it’s going to hurt your feelings,” Soloski said.

At the same time, gymnasts noted that in their experience Farden cares deeply for his gymnasts.

“He would do anything for any one of his athletes, to help them, to get through college and get them through life,” Burch said. “I think he’s really caring. It’s almost like he is a parent.”

Performing hurt

Gymnastics has among the highest injury rates in college sports, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

On one occasion, a gymnast who was dealing with a debilitating multiyear injury that had her in tears during warmups before a meet — “I repeatedly was flinging myself around the bars and falling and being yelled at and told to go again while crying because I didn’t know what was happening to my body,” she said — competed nonetheless and says she was berated afterward for “costing Utah the victory.”

Utah celebrates after winning the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023.
Utah reacts after winning the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Multiple gymnasts and parents say that Farden would, at times, disregard the seriousness of injuries, in their estimation displaying a lack of care or interest in gymnasts’ physical well-being, though others said that Farden was sensitive to their specific injury concerns.

One former All-American who dealt with myriad injuries during her time at Utah said she was at one point limited to two events because that’s all her body could handle.

“But he saw that as laziness, me not being determined and having a lack of motivation. He was aware of my physical issues, but he still saw me as a lazy worker,” she said.

Another gymnast who competed injured her entire career said the coaching staff never advised her to stop training. “It was, ‘Well, we really need you. We really need your routine.’ That might not seem that bad, but when you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, it seems like if you don’t perform then you’re letting everyone down,” she said.

But one of the gymnasts who is alleging emotional and verbal abuse described Farden as being understanding in regards to her injuries. “He basically told me at that time that, ‘We’re here for you and will do everything we can to help you.’ Just very understanding,” she said.

All the gymnasts that the Deseret News spoke to praised multiple members of the Utah training staff for their treatment of injuries, with one describing a medical trainer as a godsend.

Other gymnasts say that Farden was misunderstood, in part due to the dynamic of a man coaching a team of women.

“I think it’s hard in women’s sports to be a male head coach,” Soloski said. “It’s difficult to show the emotion and care you have for your athletes, because there is a boundary. Tom has an intense nature, he’s not one to jump up and down and hug his athletes, but that is no indication of how much he cares/cared about his athletes.” 

Moreover, some gymnasts emphasized that college sports is tough but Farden never crossed the proverbial line while pushing them to their fullest potential.

“I had a lot of different coaches before I came to college,” Burch said. “Harsh, soft and easy. I would say (every gymnast) has a limit and coaches have to find your limit, help you get to that limit, but never push you over it. And obviously, everyone has a little bit different of a limit. Tom is a very good judge of people’s limits.”

Tom Farden watches the arena screen during an NCAA gymnastics meet with BYU at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 8, 2016.
Utah Red Rocks then co-head coach Tom Farden watches the area screen during a meet against BYU at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 8, 2016. | Chris Samuels, Deseret News

Don’t tell your parents

Some gymnasts say that Farden has created a “toxic culture” at Utah where teammates turn on each other.

“Even my teammates were siding with the coach,” said a gymnast. “It was just a toxic environment that truly stemmed from toxic leadership. Girls are only going to act as well as they see leadership treating their teammates. I feel like that’s where you set the standard of respect and what should be expected.”

Some gymnasts said that Farden pitted them against each other to an unhealthy degree and when athletes vocalized their frustration with the way things worked, teammates policed their peers as often as, if not more than, Farden himself.

“I definitely did have support from my teammates, but also because of how Tom is, I didn’t,” a gymnast said. “People really wanted to support their teammates, and I know, they were trying to but because of Tom’s actions and behavior, they didn’t. Out of fear and also wanting to make him happy.”

The desire to please Farden led athletes to try and gain favor by reporting on their teammates, gymnasts say, both in practices and outside gymnastics. Gymnasts allege Farden used the information gathered to insert himself into their lives, to such a degree that one former Red Rock recalled feeling acute anxiety when Farden texted her years after she completed her eligibility.

He was wishing her a happy birthday.

“He made it known to us that he knew everything about what was going on in our lives,” a gymnast said. “It’s hard to describe, but basically everything, who we were friends with, who we were hanging out with and what we were doing on the weekends. We had to be perfect in every way, all the time.”

Other gymnasts say they had an extremely positive experience, crediting much of that to Farden’s influence and involvement. They appreciated his check-ins on their personal life and schooling and happy birthday texts remain a highlight to this day.

“Overall, I would say I had a fantastic experience,” Soloski said. “Gymnastics is not an easy sport to do, especially at the level that Utah competes at and I could not have asked for a better college experience.”

Some gymnasts say Farden’s need for control leads him to isolate girls as young as 16 from their family upon arrival at Utah.

They said they were explicitly told not to tell their parents about anything said in meetings or practices. They said he told the team at practice that he was sick of getting phone calls and emails from parents.

“He would say things like, like ‘Don’t have your parents contact me. This doesn’t have anything to do with them. They’re not here, they don’t know what you’re going through.’ He’s saying that to the whole team, to girls ranging from 16 to their early 20s,” said one gymnast. “That was like a pretty common theme throughout my career, that you need to cut ties from your parents basically.”

The approach left many parents in the dark when it came to their daughters’ well-being, with one recalling that she learned about a season-ending injury suffered by her daughter on an NCAA gymnastics fan page on social media. She said she received no notice or communication from Utah until hours later when her daughter sent her a matter-of-fact text stating that she had suffered a serious injury — confirming the speculation on the fan page — and was having surgery in a couple of days.

“Nobody reached out to me to let me know that she was hurt and seriously hurt,” the parent said. “None of the coaches or the medical staff.”

Other gymnasts described Utah’s culture as being that of a family, though.

“It wasn’t what happens in the gym stays in the gym,” Burch said. “It was more of what happens in our family stays in our family. It wasn’t ever don’t tell your parents this, it was always the entire world shouldn’t know about it. It stayed between our family and our direct family was our parents, our siblings and our team.”

The business of college sports

It all goes back to a need to win, the gymnasts alleging abuse said.

“It’s all business (at Utah) and you’re a pawn in his chess game,” said one gymnast. “And the moment you’re no longer needed he throws you to the side. That’s just like the moral of the story. That’s why certain people leave the program, because they’re sick and tired of not feeling like a human. When you’re in it, though, you can’t put that narrative on it because you just feel like a failure.”

Over the years, gymnasts have rarely transferred from Utah to other schools, though three entered the NCAA transfer portal this offseason alone, with another leaving the year prior.

“Everything is about him,” said the assistant coach. “The gymnasts doing well isn’t about the athlete, it is about him. Making him look good.”

Farden has had plenty of success at Utah and has the Red Rocks poised to compete for a national title again this upcoming season, with a team filled with former Olympians, NCAA champions and elite prospects. College Gym News ranked Utah No. 3 in their “Way Too Early Power Rankings For the 2024 Season.”

For those whose experience with Utah gymnastics was positive, the investigation into Farden is heart-wrenching.

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“I’m aware of what’s going on, with all of this. And I just, it breaks my heart. For him. It really does,” Soloski said.

Added Burch, “Those girls were on my teams. And for me, if it were true, I wish the girls could have come to me with that. I can’t say if it is true or not, because obviously I can only live my own experiences. But I wish I would have known if girls were feeling like this so that I could have helped.”

But gymnasts alleging abuse who spoke with the Deseret News routinely asked at what cost is all the success?

“Don’t get me wrong, I know the team is phenomenal each season and they go to nationals every year and they have success,” a gymnast said. “And I feel like I have moved on. But I definitely have days where what happened to me in the past comes back. I notice it and it reflects in my behavior, just everything I went through.”

Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden, left, celebrate Alexia Burch’s vault routine during meet against Arizona State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
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