SALT LAKE CITY — In what can only be described as a gross understatement, the abrupt end to the 2020 NCAA gymnastics season was anything but welcome.
Warranted to be sure, what with the arrival of COVID-19, but quite unsolicited — for none more so than Utah’s gymnastics team.
The Red Rocks were in the midst of one of the most successful campaigns in program history before the season was unceremoniously cut short. Utah was ranked No. 4 in the nation and appeared primed to finish the season at least that high in the polls — if not higher — a finish that would have been the team’s best since 2015.
The Utes were the inaugural regular-season Pac-12 champions, having gone undefeated in conference play with road wins over No. 3 UCLA, No. 9 California and No. 11 Washington. It was a stretch unlike any head coach Tom Farden could remember.
“I don’t think we have (had a stretch like that),” he said. “In my 10 years here, I don’t recall ever having it come down to the last two or three routines in multiple meets, where we came out on the winning side.”
Utah was also a perfect 11-0 on the year, just the second team in program history to pull that off. By the end, the Red Rocks believed themselves to be legitimate national title contenders and many of their fans did too.
We’ll never know just how the season might’ve ended, but here are some things you didn’t know you needed to know about this year’s Red Rocks.
Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Maile O’Keefe?
Probably the most cliche question ever asked — Who was your idol growing up? — proved to be a surprising wellspring of information.
Eleven Red Rocks — apologies to Adrienne Randall and Jaedyn Rucker — were asked about the gymnasts they admired the most. By and large, their answers centered on Olympians Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin.
“I do love Olympians,” Cristal Isa said.
And the Red Rocks love Johnson.
Sydney Soloski, Alexia Burch, Hunter Dula and Jillian Hoffman all singled out Johnson, while Missy Reinstadtler, Cammy Hall and Isa included her among multiple gymnasts they idolized.
“(Shawn Johnson) was the one that I looked up to as a young athlete,” said Soloski. “The 2008 Olympics was the first Olympics I watched gymnastics-wise. That was the first time I really understood what was happening. We have the same body type and I could really resonate with her. She was incredible. I think she was ahead of her time.”
That was a sentiment shared by nearly all, but Burch took it a step further.
“She is the kind of person I wanted to grow up and be, not just gymnastics-wise, but also just her as a person,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be somebody like that.”
Liukin’s supporters, while less in number, were no less fervent in their support, chief among them Kim Tessen and Abby Paulson.
“I always loved Nastia Liukin,” said Tessen. “Her gymnastics was so beautiful and she made it look so easy.”
Paulson, meanwhile, was drawn to her because she was different from most gymnasts.
“She didn’t have as much of the power as Shawn and the other girls from 2008 and I was kind of like that,” Paulson said. “I was more of a twister, so to say, on floor (exercise). Even uneven bars aspects, she was just someone that I always looked up to.”
While Johnson and Liukin dominated the conversation, there were some outliers.
Reinstadtler tabbed 2012 Olympic silver medalist McKayla Maroney as one of her idols, relating to their shared style of gymnastics and strengths on floor and vault.
Hall, for her part, had an affinity for Olympians Dominique Dawes and Gabby Douglas.
“Seeing successful gymnasts that look like me doing so well motivated me to be like them,” Hall said. “All of their gymnastics was so unique and beautiful to watch. They showed me that pretty much anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
Maile O’Keefe was firmly on the Olympian train too, only her choice was Alicia Sacramone. O’Keefe knows Sacramone personally, but it was the gymnast’s perseverance that inspired her most.
In a fun twist, O’Keefe was an idol herself, one of Isa’s.
The duo are from Las Vegas and Isa remembers watching and drawing inspiration from O’Keefe as they grew up.
“I remember when I was a level 8 and was 10 (years old), she was a level 10, but she was 8,” Isa said. “I was always amazed by that. I have always tried to be as good as her. I never thought we’d be going to the same college, which is really cool.”
While most of the Red Rocks had gymnastics idols, one did not: Emilie LeBlanc.
“I was a very disconnected gymnast,” she said. “I didn’t really follow the gymnastics world. I spent most of my time playing outside and going to the gym, just focused on the sport itself.”
A whole different level of everything
That LeBlanc was the greatest outlier isn’t all that surprising. Her journey to Utah is unique among the Red Rocks.
A transfer from Maryland, LeBlanc joined the team in August, missing out on voluntary summer workouts.
Of course, even had she arrived earlier in the summer she wouldn’t have been working out with the team. Complications from wisdom teeth removal would have seen to that.
“Three weeks before I got here I had my wisdom teeth removed,” explained LeBlanc. “There was a complication and I couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t go upside down because of the pressure in my head. I had to get my mouth stretched. That was fun.”
For weeks, all LeBlanc could eat was smoothies. By the time she got to Salt Lake City she was “very malnourished and very out of shape.”
Which made an already difficult transition to Utah that much harder.
“At Maryland we didn’t do that much in the gym, conditioning-wise or practice-wise,” said LeBlanc. “It was very light hearted, do your thing and get out. When I got here, I hadn’t conditioned in, well I don’t even know how long. I was very behind physicality-wise, but I finally caught up. It took me a month to get back in my normal shape, and then a month to get into Utah shape.”
What exactly is Utah shape? It involves a great deal of conditioning, also weightlifting and repetition like you wouldn’t believe.
“We didn’t do much conditioning at Maryland, but that is all they do here,” said LeBlanc. “They kick your butt. They aren’t satisfied with us, either. We can go up and hit a perfect 10 in practice and they’ll say, ‘No, you can do it again, that wasn’t good enough,’ or ‘If you can do it twice in a row I’ll believe you.’ It was a whole different level of everything.”
That was why LeBlanc decided to come to Utah in the first place, though.
“I love that they want more from us,” she said. “The ambition of the coaches really drives us to do better. The team all wants to succeed and get better. We are all trying to beat each other and that makes it super competitive.”
And once she finally got in shape, LeBlanc proved up to the challenge, competing on bars and balance beam in every single meet this season, tying her career-high on both events in the process.
“I was just really impressed with how she came into a completely different level program than what she was at,” Reinstadtler said. “Being leadoff or second up on events is a big deal, and she has done a beautiful job.”
From worst to first
Beautiful is a word that was often used to describe Reinstadtler’s gymnastics during her time up on the hill and for good reason. You don’t earn career-high scores of 9.925 (beam) 9.95 (bars) or 9.975 (floor), nor NCAA All-American honors, without a descriptor like beautiful or something akin to it.
Beautiful was used most when Reinstadtler competed on bars, an event that was by far her strength this past season. She scored a 9.875 or better seven times, including a season-best 9.925 against Washington and Oregon State.
Interestingly enough, bars used to be her worst event.
“My bars are kind of good now, but back in the day they were not,” she said, chuckling. “When I was getting recruited, I was not good at bars at all. My strengths were mainly floor and vault.”
As an elite gymnast, she competed a Yurchenko 1.5 on vault, something Utah fans never saw, for which they can blame injuries.
“I did it my freshman year (of high school), when I was doing elite. I ended up getting surgery on my foot and then brought it back my senior year of high school,” Reinstadtler said. “After that I was on crutches again, more injury stuff, so then my freshmen and sophomore years (at Utah) I just stuck with the (Yurchenko) full. Last year I was working on it for the whole season and then my foot injury came back so it has kind of been in the works for a while.”
Reinstadtler wasn’t alone in dealing with injuries. Every gymnast has their ailments, some more debilitating than others. And some hurts never quite go away.
“It depends on the injury,” said Reinstadtler. “There are some where if I stop doing gymnastics and have a few weeks off, I can feel them more, almost. (Former Ute) Macey (Roberts) has said the same thing. It just depends. There are things that get better with rest and there are things that are always going to be there.”
A vocal leader
Reinstadtler was one of three team captains for Utah this year, along with Tessen and Soloski. Soloski, a junior, has a chance to hold down the captaincy for two straight seasons.
“I think that is a blessing and a curse,” she said.
All jokes aside, Soloski loved being a captain.
“I really love it,” she said. “I do. I have always been someone who is a control freak and I really like that role. I’ve just always been that type of person. The leadership part of it comes quite naturally to me. And the helping others, making little lists for everyone, that is something I really excel at.”
Still, the role came with its challenges, foremost among them being the expectations.
“I didn’t realize the pressure of the gymnastics side of it,” said Soloski. “As a captain, people expect that you are going to be the best. I don’t know if I ever really saw the captain role tie into the gymnastics side of it. That has been the part for me that has been the shock. Like ... my gymnastics has to meet the level of the best on the team because I am a captain.”
It took a couple of meets, but by the end of the year Soloski had become one of Utah’s best gymnasts. Starting with the Arizona meet, she scored a 9.90 or better on floor in five consecutive competitions, including three scores of 9.95.
Off the competition floor, she proved just as successful and became the Red Rocks’ vocal leader, emulating one of her favorite former teammates, Tiffani Lewis, along the way.
“A lot of people didn’t like her in her time, because she could be really aggressive, upfront and intense, but she was someone I gravitated toward,” said Soloski. “I liked her intensity and how strict she was with certain things. Now, I am kind of the Tiffani of the group. I am the most vocally intense.”
Which, if you ask them, was what the Red Rocks needed.
“I think we benefitted from that,” said Hall. “We want to be intense. We want to be aggressive and we practice that. To have someone who has that as a part of their personality and character makes it that much easier to follow in their footsteps.”
Journeying to Utah
Speaking of footsteps, multiple Red Rocks were drawn to Utah, in part, by former teammates and/or compatriots who they ended up following to Salt Lake City.
Soloski was one. Growing up in Canada, she actually didn’t even know Utah existed until she began the recruiting process. She did, however, know of Nansy Damianova, a fellow Canadian gymnast. Learning that Damianova was a Red Rock only helped Utah sell Soloski on the program.
“She is someone I looked up to when she was going through the elite system back home,” said Soloski. “When I came on my official visit and found out that she came here, that was kind of cool. It was cool to know someone that I idolized years ago came to exactly where I am right now.”
Paulson had an even more personal connection to the U. She was teammates with former Ute Breanna Hughes at Twin City Twisters in Champlin, Minnesota. After Hughes joined the team, that relationship led Paulson to watch more than a few Utah meets. Before too long, Paulson was sold.
“Even when I was little I followed the program,” she said. “When Bre came to Utah, that was another reason.”
Many of the rest of the Red Rocks lacked a connection to Utah prior to the recruiting process. O’Keefe hardly paid attention to college gymnastics at all, let alone the Utes.
“I was on a different path when I was in elite,” she said.
Still, by the time she was 13 she had made up her mind that she wanted to be a Red Rock and when she was 14, she verbally committed.
Dula didn’t know college gymnastics was even a thing before she moved to North Carolina when she was 11. Her gym there displayed banners depicting girls who had gone on to college, which opened her eyes to the possibility.
“Seeing all those I realized it was possible and I committed here when I was 12,” she said.
LeBlanc may have been the latest on the college gymnastics train. It wasn’t until she was in ninth grade that she even entertained the idea.
“I just was not interested,” she said. “It wasn’t something that came to mind until I realized it was actually fun to compete with a team of girls that you want to do well with.”
How long is too long when celebrating?
Well doesn’t do justice to what Utah achieved this season, which only makes the end that much more disappointing.
So here to cheer everyone up is LeBlanc, with the final thing you need to know: what was going on in her head after Paulson’s perfect 10 on beam against UCLA.
A little bit of context first, though. Paulson’s perfect score won the meet for Utah. As thrilling as it was to observers, however, gymnasts rarely know what is going on in a meet while it is happening, especially not scores.
“I personally had no idea what was going on against UCLA, until after our beam rotation,” said LeBlanc. “And I thought everyone was yelling because Abby got a 10. I was like ‘Yeah, Abby! Let’s go!’
“But then everyone kept yelling. For so long. And I started to wonder why we were still yelling. I knew she did really awesome, but it had been 10 minutes. I finally asked who won (the meet) and they looked me and said, ‘Emilie, we have been celebrating for this long because we won.’”
While few are in the mood to celebrate now, with all but two gymnasts returning from this year’s team, the odds are there will be some more prolonged celebrations for Utah come 2021.