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How Utah gymnastics is navigating the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic

Utah gymnast Cristal Isa enters the arena during introductions before the start of the Red Rocks Preview gymnastics event at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.  
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If 2020 were a normal year, Utah’s gymnastics team would be smack dab in the middle of preparations for NCAA regionals right about now.

Based on the final Road to Nationals rankings, the Red Rocks would be just days away from a trip to State College, Pa., as the top-seeded team in the University Park Regional, which was slated to be held from April 2 to April 4 at the Rec Hall. Traditional rivals Michigan and Georgia would likely have joined Utah there, along with Kentucky, among others.

Had the Red Rocks found success in central Pennsylvania — success being defined in this case as top-two finishes in consecutive days of competition — they would have punched their ticket to nationals for an NCAA-record 45th time. Once there, who knows what could have happened.

“As a coach — and I think some of the athletes on the team felt this, too — there was mojo building,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.

This year has been anything but normal, though. Instead of being the toast of the University of Utah, with a national title within their grasp, the gymnasts are like any other collection of students at this point, taking classes online and sheltering in place.

Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind couple of weeks.

“It feels like two years,” said Farden. “In my wildest dreams I never would have imagined something like this. But we are all going through it. All the programs, universities and sports in the United States are going through it so I can empathize with how challenging this is for everybody.”

What exactly are the gymnasts going through, though? How have their lives been affected? What are the challenges being faced and how is Utah gymnastics handling them?

Heartbreak

The very first thing the Red Rocks had to address after the cancellation of the 2019-20 season was heartbreak.

After they won the regular season Pac-12 championship, there was a legitimate argument to be made that Utah could contend for the NCAA title. To miss out on even a chance hurt, deeply.

“It is heartbreaking. Especially for our seniors,” said Farden. “It is extremely heartbreaking to not be able to read the end of the book. I felt like we made it all the way through Chapter 11 or 12” — in a 15-chapter book — “and this team was incredible with what they did and have so many things to be proud of.”

The Red Rocks, of course, understand why the season was canceled. They even released a “Message to the World” video, in which they detailed the seriousness of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

None of it lessens the hurt, though.

“Our sacrifices are the same as so many other top teams, so we can’t get so self-centered that we think that we are sacrificing more, but you are heartbroken because you didn’t get to see it through,” said Farden.

To go home, or not?

Almost immediately following the cancellation of the season, all but essential university services began to shut down up on the hill. That meant many Utah gymnasts, particularly those who lived on campus, had to return home, such as Abby Paulson.

Those Red Rocks who live off-campus had a little more leeway and as a result, some remain in Salt Lake City.

“They did the math, and some of them are getting apartments and they stayed because of that,” said Farden.

Sydney Soloski was one of those, Farden explained. Her international status — she is Canadian — played a role, too.

“Sydney is an international student and signed a lease previous to our coronavirus closings,” explained Farden. “She signed with an apartment and she is an international. For her, it is like ‘I’m moving in four weeks. I don’t want to go back and forth between home and be quarantined 14 days in both places.’”

Communication adaptations

With the Red Rocks scattered, communication has risen to the forefront. During the season, gymnasts and coaches — as well as certain support staff — meet face-to-face almost daily, whether it be for training, therapy or counseling.

Now, those face-to-face interactions have become virtual and that has taken some time to figure out, though Farden was quick to note, “communication is constant and frequent.”

Utah has a weekly team meeting via Zoom now — on Mondays — “to kick off the week, to go over academics, physical training and physical therapy,” he said.

That meeting usually involves 23 to 24 people, and includes everyone involved with the program, including their sports psychologist and wellness director.

Farden is also texting gymnasts and coaches on a daily basis, and talking “to the ones that I need to, more frequently, for other reasons,” he said. “We’ve had so many video calls and conference calls. You have to keep recruiting, you have to keep your staff together and you have to keep in touch with upper admin. There is just a lot of organizing.”

Academics to the forefront

With athletic competition on the back burner for now, academics have taken on an even greater importance than they already had. Almost all of Utah’s gymnasts were enrolled in what Farden calls “brick and mortar” classes, so the shift to online-only class has been a learning process.

“So many professors are handling it in their own way,” said Farden. “They are using different platforms and some of them are requiring attendance during that time and some of them are not. Our athletes who had a full plate of five classes are busy. And that is the No. 1 priority right now, for them to learn the new landscape.”

Pac-12 champions

Even amidst all that has happened over the last couple of weeks, the 2019-20 season will always engender questions of what if. What would have happened at the Pac-12 championships? At regionals? At nationals? What happened at those meets would have informed what to expect of Utah going forward, too.

Farden acknowledges the what-ifs, but hopes the season will be remembered for what Utah accomplished.

“The what-ifs will remain there, but we are going to hang our hat on our regular season championship,” he said. “That was only championship that was doled out in the conference. That is what we can hang our hat on now and be proud of what we have accomplished.”