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How Utah freshman Maile O’Keefe has navigated the transition from elite gymnastics to the NCAA

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes on the floor during the Best of Utah gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. 
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Maile O’Keefe has been great for Utah gymnastics of late.

Since the first of February, O’Keefe has earned nine scores of 9.90 or better, out of 14 total routines, in meets against No. 24 Arizona, No. 9 California, No. 14 Oregon State, No. 3 UCLA and No. 12 Washington — what a sequence that was.

Among them was the 9.975 she earned on balance beam against Oregon State and the 9.925 she scored on uneven bars at UCLA. On each of her last three floor routines she’s scored a 9.90, all on the road.

O’Keefe is up to four event victories now, which is tied with Cristal Isa for the fourth most on the team. She’s also been the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week twice. Simply put, O’Keefe has become an invaluable contributor on an undefeated Utah team.

Become is the key word there. Early in the season, O’Keefe was not the standout performer she is now.

Through the first three meets of the year, she didn’t score over a 9.875 and reached that score only once. Of the 11 routines she performed against No. 13 Kentucky, at the Best of Utah, and against Arizona State, she scored a 9.775 or lower on five of them.

For a gymnast who arrived at Utah with almost outsized expectations — she, along with Abby Paulson, was a headliner of one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in the country — it was surprising, shocking even.

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe performs on the beam as Utah gymnastics 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

O’Keefe had been a three-year member of the USA National Team (Junior). She qualified as an International Elite as an 11-year old. She was the first P&G national champion to ever sign with Utah, and the list of medals she won in international competition is way too long to be riddled off here.

So why the slow start? Well, as it turns out, the transition from elite gymnastics to NCAA gymnastics is anything but easy.

One of the biggest differences between the two, excluding the skills themselves, is perspective. As an elite gymnast, your singular focus is yourself. There is no team, just the individual.

“It is all about you,” Kim Tessen explained. “You mess up, that is on you.”

Going from that to a completely team-centered ideology is not easy.

“The nerves are different,” said Tessen. “When you are here and you mess up, it affects the whole team. If you do really well, it affects the whole team. It is a different type of pressure.”

Dealing with that pressure has been the hardest part of becoming a Red Rock for O’Keefe.

“I had to learn how to compete with my teammates,” she said.

Early on, she tried a little too hard to make the transition, to her and the team’s detriment.

“She was going through a phase of wanting to help too much,” Missy Reinstadtler said. “She wanted to be so perfect and didn’t want to let us down.”

And it affected her gymnastics.

“We had to kind of just stop her and tell her that we would be proud of her no matter what,” said Reinstadtler. “She needed to not make it (the transition) a bigger deal than it is. I think that has finally started to click. Now, her hard work and talent have come through.”

O’Keefe will be the first to tell you that her transition remains ongoing — “I’m still not completely used to it, honestly,” she said — but with every subsequent competition she has grown more and more comfortable and the Red Rocks could not be happier.

“Maile has done an incredible job,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “We can see it happening each day, that she is learning more about how NCAA competitions work, as opposed to elite competitions. You can see it coming on and her scores are reflecting that. We are tickled pink to see her progress and think the transition is only going to continue to get better as she matures and gets seasoned through our program.”

Considering the recent tear she has been on, better for O’Keefe can only mean great things for Utah gymnastics.

Red Rocks on the air

No. 4 Utah (197.335) vs. Stanford (195.685)

Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

Friday, 7 p.m. MST

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