Imagine for a second that it is 2018. The evening of March 23, to be exact.
Ten thousand-plus fans have filed into the Maverik Center in West Valley City, filling it to near capacity, all to take in the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships.
UCLA is there and in rare form. Oregon State, too, along with Cal and Arizona State. Their gymnastics, led by the Bruins, is impressive, but the masses — draped in red — are there for one team and one team only: Utah.
The Red Rocks are in the midst of their best performance of the season, when junior MyKayla Skinner steps onto the elevated floor.
She proceeds to dazzle, inspire, shock and awe on her way to a perfect 10.
“She was in her element,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said on that day. “That 10 was well deserved and a long time coming.”
Now imagine that right after that routine, after a floor exercise performance that brought thousands to their feet in ovation, Skinner was allowed to go again.
That is essentially what Utah gymnastics fans can look forward to starting in the 2021 season and beyond. That is what the Wednesday signings of Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum mean for the Red Rocks.
Both Eaker and McCallum signed letters of intent early Wednesday morning and immediately became two of the greatest to ever call themselves Utah gymnasts.
In fact, Eaker and McCallum are only the third and fourth world champion gymnasts to ever sign with Utah, after Skinner and Ashley Postell.
“It is a good day,” Farden told the Deseret News. “It is a rarity for us. Unless I did the math wrong, we’ve never had two world champions from America in the same recruiting class. We’ve had world champions before, MyKayla and Ashley, but they were the singular person in their class. This is a very special recruiting class. Couldn’t be more proud of a group effort in getting these athletes, these world champions, to commit.”
‘The talent is there and you could see it, even so early’
The signings of Eaker and McCallum have been a long time in the making.
Much like the team’s high publicized recruitment of Skinner — “It has been well documented that with MyKayla, we started recruiting her when she was in seventh grade,” said Farden — both Eaker and McCallum were first recruited by the Red Rocks when they were 12 and 13 years old.
The rules have changed since then, but five years ago, Eaker and McCallum could call Utah’s coaches and go on unofficial visits to Utah’s campus, which they did.
“You just had to be at all the big time meets and do whatever you could to make a connection,” Farden said. “The rules have changed in the last two years, but with both of those kids the process started a long time (ago).”
So long ago that Farden couldn’t say that he knew for a fact, back in 2015, just how good Eaker and McCallum would turn out to be.
What he did know, though, what he saw from a young Eaker and McCallum, was that both had the drive that you need to become a world class gymnast.
“‘The talent is there and you could see it, even so early,” Farden explained. “I saw that from both of them early on in their personality. Their drive and their will to complete. They would get a correction (from their coaches) and then go back and make a small change on very the next turn. They were students of the sport who really wanted to pursue excellence.”
‘Kara and Grace’s accolades speak for themselves’
The duo’s pursuit of excellence has been an absolute success, and the list of accolades and achievements by both are on par with some of the world’s greatest gymnasts.
“Kara and Grace’s accolades speak for themselves,” said Farden.
For Eaker, she was/is:
- A two-time U.S. Senior National Team member in 2018-19 and 19-20.
- A member of the U.S. Junior National Team in 2017-18.
- Helped Team USA to consecutive team gold medals at the 2018 and 2019 World Championships.
- Advanced to the beam finals at both World Championships, placing fourth in 2019 and sixth in 2018.
- Earned a team gold medal, individual gold medal on beam and silver medal on floor as a member of Team USA at the 2019 Pan American Games
- Earned a team gold medal with Team USA in 2018 at the Pan American Championships, where she was also the gold medalist on beam and bronze medalist on floor.
- Won three gold medals — team, all-around and beam — with Team USA at the 2019 Gymnix International.
And that is only from international competition. Her success is even more astounding when you consider her success on a national stage.
As for McCallum, she was/is:
- A U.S. Senior National Team member since the spring of 2018.
- Helped Team USA to back-to-back gold medals at the World Championships in 2018 and 2019.
- Earned her first World Championship team berth after placing second on floor and third in the all-around at the 2018 selection camp.
- Won the silver medal in the all-around at the American Cup in 2019, after placing in the top-three on every event. McCallum finished second on vault and beam, and third on bars and floor.
- Led Team USA to a gold medal finish at the 2018 Pacific Rim Championships and won gold in the all-around, silver on floor and vault.
- Led Team USA to a gold medal the 2018 Pan American Championships, after winning the individual gold in the all-around and on bars. She also won the bronze on vault and beam and placed fourth on floor.
It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Eaker and McCallum are among the best 10 to 15 gymnasts in the world currently, and a case can be made to include one or both of them in a ranking of the top 5.
‘Both are legitimate contenders for the 2020ne Olympics’
Eaker and McCallum both have eyes on an Olympic berth, and the potential to make Team USA for the Tokyo Games, but there is also the expectation that each will be at Utah come the fall of 2021, and subsequently be sporting Utah leotards at the outset of the 2022 season.
“Both are legitimate contenders for the 2020ne Olympics,” said Farden. “Right now, providing everything works out and they make the Olympic team, the Olympics get done the second week of August, so we’d have to hurry them over from Tokyo and get them signed up for classes. It will be a tight turnaround to get them enrolled and settled into their dorms, but they are planning on being here after the Olympics.”
It isn’t a process that Farden and the Red Rocks are unfamiliar with. Skinner went through something similar after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
And the hope is that the success of Skinner, Eaker and McCallum will only focus the eyes of future world class gymnasts all the more on Salt Lake City.
“We are trying to keep the biggest and brightest stars who will be student-athletes looking our way,” Farden said.
‘They really don’t have a weakness when it comes to NCAA gymnastics’
When it comes to Eaker and McCallum’s impact on the Red Rocks a season from now, expect excellence from the get-go.
“I can see them immediately being strong contenders for the all-around,” Farden said. “If I am being honest, they have the potential to make up one-third of our routines. They really don’t have a weakness when it comes to NCAA gymnastics.”
Eaker is an artist, per Farden, with a level of dance of movement that Utah’s fanbase hasn’t really seen before.
“Her dance, artistry and movement pattern is just so captivating,” Farden said. “I really feel she is going to bring an awesome level of artistry.”
As for McCallum, power is her calling card. That and determination.
“She is such a determined really a powerful athlete,” Farden said. “She opens (her floor routine) with a double-double and she is adding a new near pass to her routine for the Olympics that is rarely seen.”
Throw in the fact that the duo have been teammates on the world’s greatest stage, and it is easy to understand why Farden and Utah believe the signings are special.
“They’ve been teammates at the Pan-American Games and at Worlds,” Farden said. “That is a unique combination. They’ve traveled the world together already. They know each other. With these two gymnasts, this is one of the finest recruiting classes in the country and history of our storied program.”