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No. 4 Utah got a little creative during the summer and fall, and it’s paying off for the Red Rocks now

While many teams are struggling to compete during the global pandemic, Utah gymnastics hasn’t skipped a beat

Utah’s Jaylene Gilstrap competes on the beam during a meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Utah’s Jaylene Gilstrap competes on the beam during a meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Last Friday, on Jan. 21, the most recent NCAA women’s gymnastics champion — the No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Sooners — had their worst meet since 2012.

A day later, perennial Pac-12 power UCLA opened its 2021 season against Arizona State and the Bruins posted their worst team score since 2017.

That very same day, the Washington Huskies, who a year ago battled Utah for the Pac-12 regular season title, had their worst meet since 2010.

A cursory glance at the scores of teams across the country through the first three weeks of the season reveals that those types of meets, substandard when it comes to a program’s expectations and traditions, are being had by many this season.

Not by Utah, though.

Sure, the Red Rocks lost at Oklahoma, but they had a worse meet last year and also in 2017 and in 2016. The win against Arizona was pretty standard fare, and the 196.900 tallied at the Best of Utah was the third-best season opening score for Utah in the last decade.

Now, some of the struggles of other teams has to do with missing gymnasts. Oklahoma, for instance, is without superstar Maggie Nichols for the first time in four years, while UCLA no longer has Olympians Kyla Ross or Madison Kocian.

Injuries have played a part too. UCLA star Norah Flatley missed the opener against ASU with an injured ankle, while Oklahoma freshman Meilin Sullivan is out the entire season due to COVID-19-related myocarditis and pericarditis.

Utah, by comparison, returned 77% of its gymnasts from last year and has had every gymnast, save for sophomore Jillian Hoffman, available to compete in every meet this season.

Missing stars and injuries aren’t the complete story, though. Much of the difficulty of the season stems from, well, doing gymnastics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the Best of Utah, BYU head coach Guard Young said it best: “It’s been such a whirlwind preseason all around the country. Gymnastics is a precision sport that takes lots of repetitions and it keeps getting interrupted with COVID-19. Just the fact that four schools in the state of Utah can come out during opening week and put a meet together, it’s a miracle.”

It is kind of a miracle that the Red Rocks have been able to able to maintain their consistency amid the still raging global pandemic. To fully understand how they’ve done it, you have to go back to the summer and fall, gymnastics’ offseason and preseason.

The longest offseason ever

After the 2019-20 season ended prematurely, Utah’s gymnasts did about what everyone else did in March, April and May, even June if you were one of the committed ones.

They stayed home, whether that was staying in Utah or going back to where they grew up. While they sheltered in disparate places, they all had one thing in common: They could not utilize a gym.

The gymnasts went months without swinging on bars, or tumbling on a floor, or flying off a vault. That time off was quite frankly something they had not experienced for most of their lives. At least not since they were 2 or 3 years old.

It was simple, though. Without a gym, there could be no gymnastics.

“Gymnastics is like swimming,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “You can’t swim unless you have a pool and you can’t do gymnastics unless you have a gym.”

For the athletes who stayed in Salt Lake City, there was a three months hiatus from training on actual events. For others, like freshmen Jaylene Gilstrap, Alani Sabado and Lucy Stanhope, the time off stretched to five months.

Needless to say, for most, it wasn’t easy to go so long without the sport.

“It is hard to not do gymnastics,” junior Cammy Hall said. “My body can feel it when I’m not doing gymnastics. I’ll get small aches and pains. I had experienced it (Hall tore her Achilles before her freshman season) so I knew what was coming. I was prepared, but it wasn’t super enjoyable coming back.”

Eventually the Red Rocks did get back into the gym, though anyone who has gone an extended period of time without exercise only to pick it up again can understand perfectly how their return to the Dumke Gymnastics Center went.

“The first day we all went ham in the gym and then the next day we came in unable to walk,” senior Sydney Soloski said. “During quarantine it was all about what was most convenient for you. If you didn’t want to work out one day, you didn’t have to. There was so much more flexibility. Coming back to the structure of it all, doing the nitty gritty things to be ready for the season, that was the most difficult part. Training those small muscles that you hadn’t worked for months on end was really difficult.”

A new and unusual preseason

Once back in the gym, it took only two official practices for Farden to recognize that something needed to change. What Utah had done for years, a formula that had led to the Red Rocks being recognized nationally as one of the best women’s college gymnastics programs in America, was not going to work during a pandemic.

“We absolutely had to make some changes,” Farden said. “We couldn’t do the same old, same old. That wasn’t going to work and we recognized that.”

The first change had little do with actual training, but it may have been the most impactful thing Utah did.

Some background first, though.

Because of virtual classes, Utah’s gymnasts had, for lack of a better word, grown lethargic.

“No one had to get up and go to class anymore,” Soloski said. “The coaches noticed that we were a little sluggish when we’d just wake up, walk 5 feet to our computers and sit there three or four hours before coming to practice.”

“We weren’t moving,” added senior Emilie LeBlanc. “Because we didn’t have class to go to, we weren’t walking. We weren’t getting our bodies moving.”

And it was hurting their ability to train.

The solution was simple, though not widely appreciated at first. To combat their lethargy, Farden instituted mandatory early morning yoga and/or walks.

“One of the changes was getting the kids out of bed early,” he explained. “With them not coming up (to campus), moving around and going to classes, we decided to do yoga or walks or some type of recovery circuit in the mornings.

“We had to get them up. We made them get up. I’m not sure how much they loved it, but making them get out of bed and move around made them alert when they came to practice later in the afternoon.”

How early are we talking?

“We got up at 6, 6:30 in the morning and in the moment it wasn’t fun,” said senior Alexia Burch.

But, without fail, at 7:30 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, the Red Rocks shuffled into the Dumke Center and did yoga, while wearing masks and socially distancing. Other days, before the cold weather set in, they went on early morning walks together, 30 minutes here, another 30 minutes there.

“It was definitely Tom’s idea. He was the leader on that one and told us one day after practice that that was what we were going to do,” said Soloski. “Obviously us captains had to back him up when we told the girls they had to wake up early, but everyone kind of embraced it by the end and it was a good team bonding experience.”

A new approach to team bonding

One of the most important and understated parts of the offseason and preseason is the development of team chemistry.

Gymnastics is an individual sport and extremely mentally taxing. Athletes need support, and in college they get it from their teammates. The pandemic made any sort of usual team bonding impossible, though. Outside of practice, the Red Rocks had to isolate from each other. They still have to.

“This season is a little bit different,” junior Cristal Isa said. “It is hard. All we have are each other, but we can’t see each other.”

“It has been hard with COVID,” Soloski added. “Not being able to see my teammates outside of gym.”

In a normal year, there are multiple planned excursions that enable the Red Rocks to get to know each other and discover or craft a team identity. An annual and beloved tradition is a weekend getaway in Park City, in what was described as a “super luxurious cabin.”

“We are together 24/7,” Soloski said. “The team bonding that that allows for is so much more than what we have been able to do this year with COVID.”

In place of that trip, Utah did the best it could with a scavenger hunt on campus. The Red Rocks were broken up into teams and each team had their own golf cart. It quickly became a heated competition — they are elite athletes after all — though in the end everyone received their Pac-12 regular season championship rings.

“The scavenger hunt was one of the best retreat activities,” Isa said. “It was so fun. It might sound underwhelming because of all the stuff we used to do, but we were doing nothing. Since we hadn’t done anything period, we appreciated the little things.”

That’s the thing about gymnastics. In a sport decided by inches, the littlest things matter.

So while changes Utah made this year might seem inconsequential from the outside, to a gymnast they were all worth it.

“Everything we did in preseason was worth it,” said Burch. “The start of season has proved that.”

Now the only question remaining is can the Red Rocks keep it up, and there is a strong belief there, too.

“With the obstacles that we’ve already faced, we are ready for almost anything, because we’ve already done it before,” Soloski said. “Offseason was difficult, but we prepared so diligently and now all we can do is hope it all goes in our favor.”