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Utah’s Kim Tessen breathing in rarefied air after blisteringly hot start to gymnastics season

Tessen has five events victories through two meets this season, a feat accomplished by only herself and MyKayla Skinner in the last 20 years at Utah

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Utah gymnast Kim Tessen cheers after her performance on the vault as Utah hosts Kentucky to kick off the 2020 season in the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — What does it take to make history as a gymnast at Utah?

Given the overall success of the Utah gymnastics program, what with 10 national championships — nine NCAA titles — 14 individual NCAA champions and 86 All-Americans, it would be OK to say perfection, or something close to it.

The bar for greatness at Utah is incredibly high, thanks to the careers of Megan McCunniff (Marsden), Missy Marlowe, Theresa Kulikowski, Ashley Postell, Georgia Dabritz and, most recently, MyKayla Skinner.

“We had MyKayla, MaKenna Merrell-Giles, Kari Lee and Macey Roberts (leave). Those departures opened up the opportunity for Kim to step up. She’s taken advantage of it.” — Utah head coach Tom Farden

Kim Tessen’s career numbers will never compare to those named gymnasts, who are inarguably the greatest Utah has ever seen. Through her first three seasons up on the hill, Tessen won only two events, out of 61 routines competed, which was good for a winning percentage of 3%.

By way of comparison, Postell, Skinner, Kulikowski, Marlowe and Dabritz all had at least one season where they won 35 or more events. Skinner won 34 or more events in each of her three years as a Ute. Where those greats were 14 (Kulikowski), 16 (Dabritz) or 20-time (Postell) NCAA All-Americans, Tessen has yet to be a one-time All-American.

None of this is said to disparage Tessen, but to provide context. Because, through the first two meets of the 2020 season, Tessen has accomplished what many of those greats could not.

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Utah gymnast Kim Tessen cheers after her performance as Utah hosts Kentucky to kick off the 2020 season in the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

In the season opener against Kentucky, Tessen had the meet of her life and won three events — vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. The following week in the Best of Utah, she nearly did it again, winning on both bars and floor while falling short of a victory on vault.

Five event wins — on six tries — in the first two meets of the year represent an absurd 8,000% increase in career wins for Tessen. More than that though, those wins mean that Tessen has gotten off to the third best start to a season by any Utah gymnast in the last 20 years.

Only Skinner has won more events in the opening two meets of a season. She won seven as a freshman in 2017, five as sophomore in 2018 and six as junior last year.

The best start Dabritz ever had was four event wins, a feat she pulled off in 2014 and 2015. Kristina Baskett won four events in 2007, and Annabeth Eberle did the same in 2004. Kulikowski won four events twice, in 2000 and 2001 — she was on pace to win five or more in 2000, but an ACL injury put the kibosh on that.

Five event wins to start the year is a statistic that belongs solely to Skinner and Tessen.

“We had MyKayla, MaKenna Merrell-Giles, Kari Lee and Macey Roberts (leave),” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “Those departures opened up the opportunity for Kim to step up. She’s taken advantage of it.”

As Farden noted, there is context to Tessen’s hot start. The Red Rocks had major voids to fill in lineups this year. Still, Tessen’s winning scores have all been 9.9 or better — included among them is a career-high 9.95 on bars — which put her scores on par with all other event winners save for Kulikowski, who had a thing for perfect 10s, and Skinner, who regularly reached scores of 9.95 or 9.975.

If there is a comparison for Tessen’s senior season thus far, it may be Breanna Hughes’ senior year, according to Farden. Hughes was a solid contributor through her first three seasons at Utah before breaking out as a senior in 2016. She ended up the Red Rocks’ Athlete of the Year and was the Pac-12 All-Around champion.

ASU gym glance

About Arizona State

Coach: Jay Santos (fourth season)

Record: 3-2 overall, 0-0 Pac-12

Notes: The Sun Devils scored a season-high 195.250 in last week’s win against UC Davis. ... ASU’s losses this year have come against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 4 Denver. … The Sun Devils are led by junior Cairo Leonard-Baker, who qualified for the NCAA Championships as an individual last season — and the year before — and was named a second-team All-American on bars. … Arizona State defeated two preseason top-25 teams — No. 14 Auburn and Penn State — in the season opener at the Collegiate Challenge.

“She really broke out and became the tentpole of that year,” said Farden. “We were super happy with that and saw some similar patterns. That 2015 senior class was a monster, the 9.9-atrons. You had Georgia, Becky Tutka, Tory Wilson and Corrie Lothrop, all of whom we had to replace.”

As great as her senior year was, though, Hughes only won two events to start 2016.

Tessen’s start to this year has been simply historic and a long time coming.

Injuries have been a major limiting factor in Tessen’s career, whether it be an Achilles rupture as a freshman or a bum right shoulder the past two seasons. Even now, Tessen is dealing with an ailing left shoulder, and every gymnast’s favorite ailment — tendinitis. 

She was healthy during the off-season and preseason for the first time in her career, and that has proven the major difference. 

“That made a big difference for me, especially mentally, with my confidence,” Tessen said. “In the past, I had to scramble at the last minute to get my routines together and going out it was all about how I had to hit my routine. This year I got my routines together earlier and instead of it being about having to hit my routine, it became about how good I could hit.”

Through the first two meets of her senior season, how good has been historically great, and the Red Rocks and Tessen can only hope that will continue.

Red Rocks on the air

No. 5 Utah (4-0) vs. Arizona State (3-2)

Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

Friday, 7 p.m. MST

TV: None

Radio: ESPN 700 AM

Live stream: UtahUtes.com