What makes a gymnastics routine perfect?
That is a question everyone involved with or interested in the sport has asked at one point or another, particularly at the collegiate level.
There just are not many perfect routines, or at least not many perfect 10s handed out, so when they happen they stand out.
Only two current Red Rocks have ever received a perfect score: sophomores Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson.
O’Keefe’s happened just last weekend in Salt Lake City, when Utah hosted and subsequently handled Washington. Paulson’s, meanwhile, came last season and propelled Utah to a thrilling road victory over rival UCLA. Both perfect scores were obtained on the balance beam.
Why were they considered perfect?
O’Keefe and Paulson tried to answer that question, about each other’s routines.
First in any discussion about a perfect routine are the skills themselves. On collegiate beam routines, that includes a mount, an acro series, leap series, plenty of dance and a dismount.
The first thing anyone sees in a beam routine is the gymnast’s mount, and O’Keefe has one of the more unique ones in the sport. She does a handstand onto the beam, an approach that fits her perfectly, according to Paulson.
“It is very fitting for her style of dance,” Paulson said. “It is very unique and she is gorgeous.”
O’Keefe has a particularly difficult series. Utah head coach Tom Farden has said on multiple occasions that her skills on beam are among the most challenging seen at the collegiate level. O’Keefe’s series is comprised of a side aerial, followed by an immediate layout step out.
- Side aerial — A cartwheel done without touching hands to the beam.
- Layout step out — A tumbling skill, most often used as part of a back tumbling series on beam. During a back layout salto, the legs are split and the landing is on one foot and then the other.
Paulson did not mince words when it comes to O’Keefe’s execution of her series against the Huskies.
“It is one of the most mesmerizing things to watch,” she said. “It flows so well and is so aggressive and sharp, but so graceful at the same time.”
After the acro series come the leaps, and those have changed slightly for O’Keefe this season, who has gone from a switch leap to a split leap. The alteration to her routine has worked out, obviously.
- Switch leap — Involves a switch of the legs before the gymnast hits a full split. The gymnast steps on her favorite leg, kicks her nonfavorite leg up then immediately back, kicking her favorite leg forward, reaching full split in the air, before landing on the one leg in the front.
“She is probably one of the only people I know who can make a split leap look that good,” Paulson said.
O’Keefe’s leaps don’t lead directly into her dismount. She does a full turn between them, along with more than a few dance moves, among them the display of the U. When she does get off the beam, though, she performs a cat leap side aerial followed by full-twisting double back.
- Full turn — A 360 degree turn done on one foot, while the legs are held and used in a variety of optional positions.
- Cat leap — A gymnast takes off from one foot, raising one knee and then the other in a turned out position with the toes pointed.
“This week at the meet, it (her dismount) was so sharp,” Paulson said. “She stuck it really nice, held the landing to show how secure she was and was able to finish strong.”
Paulson utilizes many skills similar to that of O’Keefe. In a way, their routines are nearly identical, although performed in a completely different manner.
Paulson’s mount is no less interesting than O’Keefe’s, but it is an approach she has perfected to the point that O’Keefe hardly noticed it all.
“Abby is always a very consistent competitor, so she mounted her beam,” O’Keefe said.
Like O’Keefe, Paulson competes a side aerial layout step out, and it is a series that Farden believes separates Paulson from the majority of gymnasts. The one she executed against the Bruins was nothing if not her best, too.
“It was very nice and straight, with a confident landing,” O’Keefe said.
Once again, Paulson and O’Keefe’s skills are similar, if not identical. Paulson competes a split leap, split jump that left O’Keefe impressed.
- Split leap — Starts with a brisk walk, then a gymnast steps off of her nonfavorite leg, kicks her favorite leg up and her other leg back until she is in a 180 degree split in the air, before landing on one foot at the front.
“It is really nice. Just 180 degree leaps. She was confident again, knowing that she would hit,” she said.
Paulson too does a full turn after her leap series, and O’Keefe singled it out, both for how well it was executed and how Paulson seamlessly danced out of it. As for the dismount itself, Paulson goes from a beat jump into a side aerial full-twisting double back.
- Beat jump — A straight jump where the gymnasts quickly switch their feet. Also known as a changement in ballet.
- Full-twisting double back — A gymnast does two flips backward, with the twist happening in the first flip. Can be done in the tucked, piked or layout position.
“It is just really nice,” O’Keefe said. “She had flat hips and stuck it.”
What made them perfect 10s?
Both gymnasts have an appreciation for each others skills, but they also weren’t overly impressed with their execution. Not because they weren’t executed to perfection, but because that is what these two gymnasts always do.
“Me and Maile are both really consistent in practice,” Paulson said, pretty matter-of-factly.
And not just O’Keefe and Paulson. Many gymnasts perform their skills perfectly.
“There are a lot of gymnastics who do really solid routines,” Paulson said. “Clean, sharp, really perfect routines.”
So what made these specific routines different, even perfect in the eyes of the judges?
That would be the performances.
Just as important as the skills is the ability to sell the performance to the judges. The gymnasts who do that the best are the ones who are rewarded.
“If you engage the judges, make eye contact and have dance that actually fits your style in your routine, they are going to want to throw that 10 a lot more,” Paulson explained. “Somebody who maybe has really solid routine, with nice skills and even nice dance, but doesn’t engage and just looks down at the beam the whole time, the judges are less likely to be drawn in. So yeah, it is kind of pretty important to rope those judges into your routine.”
And against Washington and UCLA, O’Keefe and Paulson did that perfectly.
“Especially going back and watching the video, she (Maile) looks to the side and make eye contact with the judges. Maybe gives them a little smirk or smile. It was so awesome,” Paulson said.
“Abby is always very good (at that),” O’Keefe said. “I’ve learned from her how to capture the judges’ attention. She does certain things where she’ll look off the beam and look directly into their eyes, bringing them into the routine, rather than just having them watch it. Last year, she was really good at striking a pose and looking at them, just drawing them in.”
Paulson didn’t get to celebrate with O’Keefe against the Huskies — she was next up in the beam rotation — but she couldn’t have been more thrilled for her.
“I was so happy for her,” she said. “She got quite a few 9.975’s last year, so I knew that 10 was coming. Just to see it at this point in the season was super exciting.”
As for O’Keefe, she is still as proud as ever of Paulson.
“I was really proud of her. I am proud of her. We are classmates, both really good at beam and we both did elite together. In elite, it was like, ‘She is really good at beam. I want to be better than her.’ Then we came to college and it became, ‘She is really good at beam and I want to be just as good as her.’ It was good to see her hit that routine and capture the win at UCLA for us. It was really a proud moment.”
And just one of the few moments of perfection that’ll be seen.