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Why the NCAA’s decision to allow voluntary summer training will be vital to the Utah Red Rocks’ success next spring

Utah’s Alexia Burch performs a Yurchenko 1.5 on vault during the Arizona State and University of Utah gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center. Burch added the difficult vault to her repertoire during voluntary summer training, months before actual competition.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The news dropped early Friday afternoon.

The NCAA Division I Council had voted and agreed that all student-athletes could return to their respective campuses across the country starting June 1 for voluntary athletic activities.

The announcement was an addendum to an earlier decision that allowed football and men’s and women’s basketball teams to return to campus, but not athletes from sports like gymnastics, among many others.

The vote largely flew under the radar, what with football and men’s basketball reigning supreme across the national landscape, but it couldn’t have been more important for the Utah gymnastics program. You see, voluntary training during the offseason is where champions are made.

What is voluntary summer training? It is exactly what it sounds like.

Under normal circumstances, aka when there isn’t a global pandemic, gymnasts are allowed to return to their school’s gym to train following a two-week moratorium period immediately after the conclusion of the season. Coaches are present, but solely for safety reasons. They cannot dictate practices nor practice schedules. Gymnasts decide for themselves when to go into the gym. They decide what to work on and what not to. It is completely voluntary, but decidedly career altering.

Take now-Utah gymnastics alumna Kim Tessen, who had a breakout season in 2020, earning Pac-12 Specialist of the Year, scoring a perfect 10 on vault and claiming a team-best 10 event victories. Simply put, she was the best the Red Rocks had to offer, and a line can be drawn directly from offseason training to her success under the bright lights.

During the first three years of her tenure at Utah, Tessen was limited during each offseason. Voluntary training was a virtual impossibility as she rehabbed from injuries, such as an Achilles rupture. Heading into her senior year, though, she was healthy at long last in the summer, and she credited the opportunity to train during that time for her breakout campaign.

“That made a big difference for me, especially mentally, with my confidence,” Tessen told the Deseret News in the opening weeks of the 2020 season. “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.”

Tessen’s not alone in seeing summer training pay off. Fans might remember Utah’s victory over Arizona State on January 24. The highlight of that competition was the debut of a Yurchenko 1.5 on vault by Alexia Burch. The vault, more difficult than the more commonplace Yurchenko full, appeared to come out of nowhere. Burch hadn’t ever competed it during a meet in her previous two seasons at the U.

The vault didn’t come from nowhere, however. No, it was birthed during voluntary training. Burch worked on the vault throughout the offseason and then into the season itself, until it proved competition ready.

“She upped her game in every facet,” Farden told the Deseret News.

There are more stories like those. Sydney Soloski’s strong junior season? Yep, it all started with the best offseason of her Utah career. Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe’s surreal freshmen seasons? They kicked off during the summer.

Simply put, gymnasts take leaps forward during the voluntary offseason training.

“Our voluntary workouts in the summer are fantastic,” Farden said. “I find the summer to be incredibly fruitful.”

All of those anecdotes fail to convey the most important aspect of voluntary offseason training, though, which, according to Farden, has nothing to do with the learning of new skills or refinement of old ones. Instead, it has everything to do with team-building.

“It starts building the bonding process,” Farden explained. “They get to know each other. They start to figure us (the coaches) out, being around us more. Every team is different. Each year it changes, just the dynamics, and that is why the summer is so fruitful.”

In past years, gymnasts by and large would go home for the month of May and then return in early June. They’d participate in camps, working as counselors, and often take their more difficult classes so that come the season, they’d be focused on the task at hand, which at Utah means contending for a national championship.

All of that was at risk this year due to COVID-19, and while it’s not entirely clear when Utah athletes will be back on campus, voluntary offseason summer training may soon be back on schedule, and with it the Red Rocks’ championship aspirations.