Alexia Burch once dreaded the uneven bars. Now she enjoys them. What happened?
Since before her freshman season at Utah, Burch has been training on uneven bars, starting from scratch to build a competitive routine
Alexia Burch remembers it like it was only yesterday.
There she was, a bright-eyed freshman recently arrived at the University of Utah, standing inside the Dumke Gymnastics Center.
It was her turn to ‘swing bars’ for the first time as a Red Rock, her first time swinging bars in front of Tom Farden, her head coach, event coach and the man who was tasked with guiding her throughout her Utah career.
“She is one of the hardest workers I have worked with at Utah. Her love for gymnastics and her work ethic day in and day out are exceptional. ... It speaks volumes for her passion for the sport and her desire to be great.” — Utah coach Tom Farden on Alexia Burch
And ... let’s just say she didn’t leave the most favorable of first impressions. Almost the moment she got on the apparatus, Farden told her in unequivocal terms to stop doing pretty much anything at all.
“I vividly remember it,” Burch said with a laugh. “Tom was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Get off that bar.’”
He didn’t stop there. Farden told Burch right then and there and they were going to start over. She was going to start from scratch on uneven bars. Basically her routine, her technique, even her mindset were off. Burch wasn’t ready to compete on bars at the collegiate level. Not by a long shot.
Fast forward to today, and she has competed on bars in every meet this season — it is her senior year — as a key member of Utah’s bars rotation.
How did she go from being possibly Utah’s last choice on bars to a regular and needed contributor?
Burch’s relationship with bars goes back a long way, well before she arrived at Utah.
She was a standout club gymnast at Flips USA Gymnastics in Sparks, Nevada, and a member of the U.S Junior Olympic team with a long list of accolades.
Included among them were a few major successes on bars, but the truth was Burch dreaded the uneven bars. Completely and utterly dreaded swinging bars.
“It was by far my least favorite event,” she said.
But she had the goal of competing in the all-around at Utah — she still does — plus a fervent desire to prove to herself that she could be great at bars. So despite her apprehension, when Farden told her she needed to start over, she did.
“I spent on average two hours a day on bars my freshman year,” Burch said. “I would have our rotation bars, and then I would come back after practice and do straps and swing more bars.”
It was time that was much needed, even if it left Burch exhausted and bloodied afterward.
“She probably told you some horror stories about bloody hands and working extra hard every day,” Farden said. “When we first got her, I don’t think we imagined her as a strong bar worker for us. She had to get some refinement going.”
The first thing that Burch needed to fix was the most basic of all. She had to re-learn how to swing on the bar.
“I know that sounds kind of silly, but I brought it back to her swing and her feel of the bar,” Farden explained. “The athlete has to feel the bar. They have to be able to answer questions like, what does the bar do? How does it react? What is the bounce point? What happens if I pull here, or push here? What does that do to my swing? We just broke it all the way and really took our time that first year teaching swing again.”
It was the hardest thing Burch had to do.
“She muscled her bars before,” Farden said. “She had to learn to trust her bars. Her hands would be sore because she wouldn’t let the bar glide through. She wouldn’t let swing take over the mechanics. There are some things we still have to work on, even as a senior, but allowing her to trust the bar and allowing swing to occur was the biggest thing for me.”
Her work on bars didn’t stop there, though.
Throughout her freshman season and the offseason before it, Burch dropped skills that she was maybe more comfortable with in order to learn new ones. She altered her giant for one. Where she used to straddle, she switched to a straight leg. She also learned a kip — quickly, too — despite maybe not practicing it as often as Farden might have hoped.
“We were working it (the kip) right before we went home for fall break and when I got back Tom was like ‘Did you do them while you were home?’ So of course I was like ‘Oh, yeah,’” Burch said with laugh. “Then I was forced into showing him that I could make a kip hop, which was kind of funny.”
The goal her freshman season was to develop a sort of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency routine, and while Burch made progress, after year one she wasn’t quite there. She still had her original dismount, a blind full double back. Her jaeger, while improved, also wasn’t yet at the needed height.
Things took a turn for the better Burch’s sophomore year, if only slightly. The routine stayed mostly the same, but by the middle of the season she was steady enough with it that she exhibitioned a couple of times.
“By the middle of that year she had a little backup bar routine that never got debuted,” Farden said.
Burch’s area of focus as a sophomore was her dismount, but the demands of adding skills on other events kind of pushed those efforts to the side.
“We were trying to work an E dismount, but I was also trying to get different skills ready on other events so that was kind of on the back burner,” she explained.
It was in the offseason before her junior year that Burch took a leap forward on bars. Or rather, started what would become a leap.
While Burch was training on trampoline, Farden noticed she was performing a double layout over and over and over again. That is an E Level dismount, one competed regularly by many of the nation’s best gymnasts.
Burch’s proficiency with the dismount caught Farden a little by surprise, though it was a pleasant one.
“I kind of call it the journey of an athlete trying to learn bars at a high high level,” he said. “I was watching her and I was like ‘I really like that motion.’ It just felt natural to her. I liked how she went up, how she turned over, so I started teaching her that dismount.”
Learning to do a double layout on bars was much different than on a trampoline, however, so despite an entire summer’s work, Burch still didn’t quite have the new dismount down.
“That whole summer I spent my time trying to get a double layout off of bars,” she said. “That did not go well, so when season hit we went back to the blind full double back, and I was in that same scenario, ready to go in case we needed me.”
Heading into this season, Burch was determined to add the double layout. She wanted to get into the bars rotation and she knew that she needed the upgraded dismount to do it.
“I was like ‘You know what? We are getting this dismount,’” Burch said.
Farden, playing the role of coach, tried to temper Burch’s expectations a little — she had been training bars for three seasons without adding a new dismount — but Burch would have none of it.
“I was really pushy about it,” she said. “Tom kept saying things like, ‘We’ll see how it goes’ and ‘Keep working on it,’ and I was like no “I’m competing it. I don’t know what you are talking about.’”
All summer long, through the pandemic, Burch worked on the double layout, and just before the preseason, it became a consistent part of her routine, a routine she has now competed every week this season.
“All the credit goes to her,” Farden said. “She did it. I am just a guide. That is all the coach ever is. It was a journey and I kind of get tickled pink with the results because she had to work.”
Work is something that Burch does exceptionally well, so it is little surprise that she put in the time needed to build a competition-ready routine.
“She is one of the hardest workers I have worked with at Utah,” Farden said. “Her love for gymnastics and her work ethic day in and day out are exceptional. I mean she added a (Yurchenko) 1.5 her junior year and she’s added bars her senior year. It speaks volumes for her passion for the sport and her desire to be great.”
Burch’s success also validates one of Utah gymnastics’ preeminent philosophies.
“In my opinion, it is my job to get them (athletes) going on every event that they can possibly contribute on,” Farden said. “That is our job, to train them on all four events, which people rarely know. We watched Adrienne Randall be known as a beam and a floor worker and no one knows that she can do all four events. When they are here, they should be able to do as many events as their body will allow and we train them to do that.”
On that day back in the summer of 2017 when Farden had little issue telling a young Burch that she was going to have to start from scratch on uneven bars, he added a bit of advice.
“He told me if bars was going to love me, I was going to have to learn to love bars,” Burch said. “That stuck with me. I told myself ‘I am going to learn to love it so it loves me back.’”
And now, after years of work, the dread that Burch once had is gone.
“It is kind of funny,” she said. “I actually really do enjoy swinging bars now.”
To the benefit of Utah gymnastics.