Editor’s note: First in an occasional series catching up with former University of Utah gymnasts.

PLEASANT GROVE — There is a popular expression, born in the early- to mid-20th century that simply states: Don’t you know you can’t go home again?

It’s origins are interesting enough, and involve American author Thomas Wolf and Australian British journalist and activist Ella Winter, but that story doesn’t have much bearing here.

“It was my dream all growing up to become a coach. It is my dream job. I love that I get to work with these amazing kids every day.” — MaKenna Merrell-Giles

The phrase though, has had bearing in many lives. For a number of people, the majority even, home really is something you cannot go back to. Home is an idea that lives in your head and life itself often falls agonizingly short.

MaKenna Merrell-Giles is not most people and she has proven the expression wrong.

A little over a year ago, she concluded what was a highly decorated gymnastics career at the University of Utah. Her list of accolades is long and varied, highlighted by the nine All-America honors she earned as a gymnast at the U. Afterward, she went home.

Merrell-Giles is now a club coach at All American Gymnastics in Lindon, the very gym she grew up in. Her home away from home. From the time she was toddler to the moment she left her hometown of Pleasant Grove to pursue a collegiate career at Utah, Merrell-Giles trained at All American Gymnastics. And now she is back.

“I had the great opportunity to come in and coach,” she said.

The opportunity came as a surprise, the timing of it especially.

Merrell-Giles, who graduated this past April from the University of Utah with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism, with an emphasis in sports management and a minor in nutrition, was expecting to be a student-coach for the Red Rocks in 2020 as she finished her schooling.

She was going to learn under Tom Farden and assistant coaches Carly Dockendorf, Garrett Griffeth and Courtney McCool-Griffeth, and then hopefully get a coaching position at All American Gymnastics, most likely the kind where she’d have to pay her dues and work her way up through the ranks.

That all changed in June of last year — Merrell-Giles learned as early as March — when Jimmy Pratt, the women’s head coach at All American Gymnastics, decided to take an assistant coaching position at Denver University. His departure left a void, one which Merrell-Giles was more than happy to fill.

“Our other head coaches” — Dawn Johnson, Jennifer Eaquinto and Jodi Merrell (MaKenna’s mother) — “said that they needed someone to come help and fill in,” she said. “It was such a good opportunity I couldn’t pass it up.”

Utah career highlights of MaKenna Merrell-Giles

  • Nine-time All-American (four-time NCAA, five-time WCGA regular season)
  • 2018 Regional floor champion
  • 2018 Pac-12 vault champion
  • Nine-time All-Pac-12 Conference
  • Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week award
  • 2019 team co-captain
  • 2019 Utah Most Outstanding Senior Female Student-Athlete
  • 2019 Greg Marsden Leadership Award
  • Two 10.0 scores
  • Career high 39.675 all-around score
  • 34 career victories
  • Hit 183-192 career routines
  • WCGA Scholar All-American
  • Three-time Pac-12 All-Academic

Merrell-Giles was to coach gymnasts levels 8-10 too — specifically uneven bars — which meant she would work with the very best athletes the club had, right out of the gate. It was, quite frankly, her dream coming true before her eyes.

“I wasn’t planning on starting at the level I started at,” she said. “It has been great to start with such talented kids and not have to start at the very bottom and work my way up. It has been nice to start with these amazing girls that I am working with. I am super lucky I got to start where I did.”

The turnaround from being a competitive gymnast herself to that of club coach was so quick that Merrell-Giles’ hiatus from the sport lasted merely a month, maybe two. She is quick to point out that that was only another added blessing, as if she needed anymore.

“I didn’t want to go much longer without it,” she said. “I can’t imagine not having something to do with gymnastics. Coaching filled that void in my life. It was so hard to be done with something I’d done since I was 18 months old. Stepping right into coaching didn’t give me time to look back. I was just thrown right into it, like ‘here you go, here is all this talent,’ and I’ve just tried to do my best with it. And now, I get to help make those dreams come true for the next group of gymnasts coming up.”

Whether or not any of them turn out to be as great as Merrell-Giles herself remains to be seen, but she is truly living out her childhood dream. 

“It was my dream all growing up to become a coach,” she said. “It is my dream job. I love that I get to work with these amazing kids every day. My favorite part about it is that when I am successful as a coach, it means that my young gymnasts are successful. I love that the way I measure my success is when a young girl gets to mark off a goal or feel successful about herself.”

Former University of Utah gymnast MaKenna Merrell-Giles is now a club coach at All American Gymnastics, where she coaches levels 8-10. | All American Gymnastics

It hasn’t been all visions of sugar plums and whatever else you find delightful in life, though. Merrell-Giles has had to learn how to be a coach. A lifetime of competition taught her the gymnastics itself, the skills, forms and the like, but she has had to learn how to reach her athletes emotionally and mentally, a new challenge.

“I didn’t realize how much mental coaching there is,” she explained. “There is almost more mental and emotional coaching than actual gymnastics coaching. There is so much that goes into it. Looking back now I realize how good my coaches were at that. You have to teach time management and discipline, and you have to be technically proficient in whatever event you are coaching. There is so much more that goes into it, more than just the gymnastics.”

She has embraced it all, which anyone who knew her at the U. will tell you is just MaKenna being MaKenna. 

“I’m loving learning that,” she said. “I know a lot of the gymnastics side because I was in it for so long, but it has been cool to learn all the other aspects and work under the coach that I grew up with. I learned so much from her and now we are coaching side by side. I’m grateful I’m back here because it is all the stuff I grew up knowing and now I get to apply it to the next generation.”

Through it all, including the recent purchase of a house in her hometown with her husband Matthew Giles, Merrell-Giles hasn’t lost touch with her former team. She was only able to attend one meet this year, but it was the final meet of the season, against Stanford, which proved apropos. 

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“I was only able to go to one, but it was the last one they had before everything got shut down,” she said. “That was really nice, because I was able to see Kim (Tessen) and Missy (Reinstadtler) compete for the last time. I got to see Kim’s perfect 10. That was so amazing to be there for that.”

Attending a meet as a fan for the first time since she was in high school gave Merrell-Giles a newfound appreciation for what she’d been a part of at Utah too, what she will always be a part of.

“It was so cool,” she said. “Being on the other side now, I was like ‘Wow, this is such an amazing and special thing.’ There were so many people there to watch. When you are down on the floor (as a gymnast) you are like ‘Yeah, there are a lot of people here,’ but when we were walking into the arena I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are a lot of people coming to watch this, this is crazy!’

“I just couldn’t believe I was a part of something like that. I didn’t have as good of an appreciation when I was competing, but watching it, it was a really cool and special thing that I was able to be a part of for so many years.”

And now, after fulfilling one lifetime dream at the U., she has moved on to another. Knowing her, when she looks back on her coaching career years from now she’ll have a similar reaction. That is what happens when dreams come true.