Utah gymnastics: Cristal Isa might be Superwoman with all she does away from the sport
Isa is one of Utah’s most valuable athletes on the competition floor, but her impact goes well beyond the gym itself
It might actually be impossible to lose sight of Cristal Isa.
The Henderson, Nevada, native seems to be everywhere for Utah’s gymnastics program. Everywhere and anywhere, at all times.
Prior to the meet against rival UCLA, Isa was the gymnast who modeled Utah’s new tuxedo-themed leotards. A week before that during the Red Rocks’ bye, she was the star of an open mic practice video released on the team’s Twitter account.
Early in February, when the Utah’s athletic department sought to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, there was Isa, a member of a student-athlete panel of 16 women. Only a few days prior to that, she was on the “Hear It From Harlan” podcast with Utah athletic director Mark Harlan.
When multiple Utah teams participated in an annual service project to collect food for the Feed U food pantry, in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there was Isa again, leading Utah gymnastics’ contingent.
And when the Pac-12 Conference announced the creation of a diversity and inclusion group — the official title is Gymnasts for Peace, Action, and Change (G-PAC) — it was Isa who was Utah’s representative.
This list could go on.
The thing is, Isa is a star on the competition floor — don’t worry, we’ll get to that — but she is making a far bigger, and arguably more lasting, mark off it.
‘I feel like helping out and changing things for the better’
Isa is currently a member of four student organizations at Utah:
- Utah Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).
- U.T.A.H. (United Together Against Hate).
- Utah Public Safety Advisory Committee (UPSAC).
- Pac-12 Gymnastics Diversity and Inclusion group (G-PAC “Gymnasts for Peace, Action, and Change”).
Each group has its own purpose.
SAAC, for instance, promotes “communication among student-athletes, coaches and athletics administrators on issues to improve the student-athlete experience and promote growth and education through sports participation.”
U.T.A.H., which was founded in 2019 combats hatred and discrimination.
The Utah Public Safety Advisory Committee exists to “enhance the safety and overall quality of life for the U. community.”
As for G-PAC, its mission is to “foster diversity and inclusion.”
There are specific reasons why Isa joined each of the aforementioned organizations.
SAAC was something she sort of fell into, but it has since become a passion of hers. She even heads her own campus relations subcommittee now.
“It was fun to go and I clicked with it,” she said. “I just love my campus relations subcommittee and Crimson Council. My job is to keep all the sports together and reach out to the community and other school groups. I just think the communication between athletics and the community is really important and I like spreading our influence. I feel like it is important for athletes to understand that they do have an influence on other people, so I like to encourage people to reach out.”
She was recommended for UPSAC by Utah coach Tom Farden, meanwhile, and wasn’t about to say no.
“I like helping out with activities and spreading my influence while I am still relevant. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to be this cool again ever and I just like to help people, stay busy, I guess,” Isa said.
As for U.T.A.H. and G-PAC, her participation in both organizations was spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests that took root around the country last summer.
“I definitely would say that is a big factor as to why I am more passionate about the Pac-12 diversity group and U.T.A.H. group,” Isa said. “I only joined U.T.A.H. group to educate myself. I wasn’t super aware of the inequalities happening. I didn’t understand the perspectives yet, so I joined U.T.A.H. group to get a better image in my head. I wanted to fully understand what was happening.
“I appreciate other people telling me their stories and that is why I joined so that I could spread the education to other people, and I do the same with the Pac-12 group. I would say definitely in the summer is when I became more passionate and outspoken about things.”
Ultimately, Isa participates in all she does, whether it be official organizations or not, because she wants to make a change in the world, and in her mind, there is no better time than now.
“I know that this is an extraordinary opportunity to just be on the gymnastics team,” she said, “and I feel like I have a certain amount of influence. I’m not a huge deal or anything, but I do have a voice and I feel like helping out and changing things for the better.”
‘There is nothing socially for these kids to do right now’
Isa’s do-everything attitude hasn’t hampered her gymnastics.
She is currently ranked No. 15 in the country on the uneven bars — she is one of only three Utah gymnasts ranked in the top 15 on an event, along with Maile O’Keefe and Sydney Soloski — and has been one of the Red Rocks’ most valuable gymnasts all season long (she is tied for fourth on the team with two event victories).
Part of the reason she has been able to balance gymnastics and her civic-mindedness, to say nothing of academics, is she has more free time than ever before, courtesy of the pandemic.
“There is nothing socially for these kids to do right now,” Farden said, “and I really feel she is an individual who is trying to make the most of her time while she is here.”
Farden has cautioned Isa about overloading herself, but the reality is she has proven herself capable of managing all of her responsibilities, to great effect.
“I’ve told her that I don’t want this to become so overwhelming that she can’t do what she needs to do both in the gym and with her grades,” Farden said, “but she has been really strong in her academics and in the gym, so it is hard to criticize.”
The nature of gymnastics itself has been a bit of boon in that regard. There is no scouting of opponents, only the perfection of one’s own craft, and Isa, in her third season at Utah, has arrived at a good place.
“I definitely think Cristal feels her gymnastics is in a good spot,” Farden said. “One of the benefits of our sport is it is routine. You don’t have to go and study defense and offense and all that other stuff. You have to study yourself and your own movements. Once you get closer to mastery or have more confidence in your own stuff, then you can look outward. If you feel you can spend that much time on other things, that has to be the case, and right now, she feels like she is a student-athlete.”
‘She is a person who cares about everybody’
For those close to Isa, her involvement in the community is nothing new. It is who she is.
“I think it is just her personality,” fellow junior Cammy Hall said. “She is very much a people person. She knows how to cooperate and get along with many different people. She doesn’t think so, but I definitely do and can see it.
“She has always been motivated and engaged about everybody. She is a person who cares about everybody. I think that is why she is in so many groups. She gets along with everybody and even if she hasn’t met you before she’ll make (your interaction) enjoyable.”
Soloski, for her part, believes much the same about Isa, though she’ll jest that Isa also simply cannot say no when asked to help either.
“First of all, Cristal is not great at saying no,” Soloski said with a laugh. “When she is approached about things she thinks sometimes that she is superwoman and she can do it all, and she pretty much is.
“She is a great person to put into roles that other people didn’t necessarily fill or want to fill. She is also on our Crimson Council and I don’t remember what subcommittee she does, but it is not a subcommittee that a lot of people are real eager to get into. For her, though, it was, ‘I’ll fill in the gaps where I need to. I’ll be helpful where I can.’ I think that a part of it is her wanting to help everyone. That is who she is. She is lovable, super bubbly and caring.”
Anyone who has spent any time around Isa knows that last part to be true. Her smile and attitude are routinely described as contagious and have only benefited the Red Rocks.
“She is such a positive energy and is always in a good mood,” Hall said. “It is infectious and makes everyone else want to be in a good mood. Gymnastics is always easier when you are in a positive mood and having fun. She helps the team with that and is a leader in that way.”
None of it is a front. Isa is genuinely the person she appears to be.
“I feel like this is all an extension of Cristal,” Farden said. “She wants to spread goodness throughout the world and wants to be active and engaged and have an enriched undergraduate career. What can I say other than we are really proud of her.”