Ashley Glynn had a look of stunned amazement on her face.

Ella Zirbes appeared as though, hard as she might try, she just couldn’t catch her breath.


Team scores 

  • Florida, 198.325.
  • Utah, 197.575.
  • Missouri, 197.325.
  • Michigan State, 196.625.

Event winners

  • All-around — Ellie Lazzari (Florida), Anya Pilgrim (Florida); 39.650.
  • Balance beam — Ellie Lazzari (Florida), Maile O'Keefe (Utah), Sienna Schreiber (Missouri); 9.950.
  • Floor exercise — Jaylene Gilstrap (Utah), Kennedy Griffin (Missouri), Abby Paulson (Utah), Anya Pilgrim (Florida), Leanne Wong (Florida); 9.950.
  • Uneven bars — Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.950.
  • Vault — Sage Kellerman (Michigan State); 9.975.

Tears were visible in Maile O’Keefe’s eyes, as well as Abby Paulson’s, Amelie Morgan’s and Alani Sabado’s.

Any and every emotion was valid Sunday afternoon for Utah gymnastics.

After all, against all odds, the Red Rocks are headed back to the NCAA gymnastics championships.

Needing a top two finish in the Gainesville regional final in order to advance to nationals for an NCAA record 48th consecutive time, Utah finished second behind host Florida with a score of 197.575.

To get there, though, Utah had to rally from its worst uneven bars rotation in seven seasons, a rotation that had the Red Rocks far and away in last place early in the meet, trailing Missouri by more than half a point after one rotation.

Slowly but surely, buoyed by standout balance beam and floor exercise rotations, the Red Rocks rallied, first past Michigan State and then into a tie with Missouri and then finally, in the final rotation, ahead of the Tigers.

It was a comeback to remember. A rally from what looked like absolute disaster.

“Definitely not the start that we envisioned having,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “... The thing about this team, they are fighters. And they fought to the very end.”

Fight they had to. Utah fell, or had the equivalent of a fall, three times Sunday, including twice on bars.

One of those major mistakes came on the very first routine of the meet, an aggressive but missed cast handstand by sophomore Makenna Smith. From there nerves set in and the rotation ended with a fall from senior Alani Sabado. It all led to a 48.975 score on bars, the first time this season that Utah hadn’t broken the 49 point mark on an event as well as the lowest score for the program on bars since the 2017 season.

No current Red Rock had ever been a part of a bars rotation that did that poorly.

Three events later, though, and Utah had pulled it out. Showing the grit and determination — not to mention elite ability — that had allowed the Red Rocks to succeed all season long.

And for the 48th consecutive time Utah is headed to nationals, something no other program in NCAA women’s gymnastics can come close to.

Defining moment

There was no single defining moment in Sunday’s competition. No single routine that fixed everything, or set things on the right course for Utah.

Every routine competed after Smith’s mistake and then Sabado’s and then after that a fall on beam by Grace McCallum felt as though it carried the result of the meet with it. Every handstand, leap, tumble and landing was weighed down by the expectations and history of Utah gymnastics.

How’d the Red Rocks manage to compete with that sort of pressure?

Per Dockendorf, they’d developed the strength needed beginning in the fall.

“I said to them (after the bars rotation), ‘We all made it through the fall. This fall was really challenging for us. And if we were able to survive that and do what we’ve accomplished this year, this moment was nothing compared to that,’

“They are such strong women. They are incredible athletes, but it speaks to their character and who they are as people. They believe so much in one another and wanted to do this for one another and themselves. That kind of courage and strength can’t be taught. It is developed over time and they really had to learn that this year.”

Dockendorf added: “Couldn’t be more proud of this team tonight.”

There were of course multiple routines that carried a little more weight than others, even as every single routine held Utah’s season in its hands.

Amelie Morgan competed a near flawless beam routine immediately after Sabado’s fall on bars, earning a 9.90 that visibly settled the Red Rocks down. At least for a time.

Jaylene Gilstrap then did the same on beam as the anchor, competing her best routine on that event this season, erasing the fall by McCallum with a 9.875.

“I’m exceptionally proud of all of them, but really Jaylene Gilstrap. I told her before she went up that she had been in this position before. At UCLA regionals last year the first person up on beam had fallen and Jaylene was in the anchor spot and absolutely had to hit for us to move on and she did. That was actually her best routine. So I felt confident that she was going to be able to step up today and do what she has been practicing, because she has been brilliant and beautiful. So proud of her coming through in that moment.”

Then on vault, in the final rotation of the meet, Smith got final redemption for her mistake on bars, sticking her Omelianchik. It was that stick, midway through the vault rotation, that all but sealed the comeback for Utah.

“When she stuck that, I knew that we were going to make it,” Dockendorf said. “I really felt that that was the turning point. We were going to punch our ticket to nationals.”

Standout routines

With every routine mattering in a major way it can be argued that every routine competed was notable.

Of course, some were more notable then others.

There was Paulson and Gilstrap’s floor routines, both of which earned scores of 9.95′s and gave the duo shares of the event title. In the middle of a standout floor rotation, those routines exceeded all the others.

There was also Jaedyn Rucker’s vault. Rucker, an NCAA champion on the event, had been up and down all season. She fell on vault on Friday, in the regional semifinal.

With Utah needing as many sticks as possible on vault Sunday, Rucker came through, though, with a 9.95 that followed Smith’s 9.95. Those two vaults, more than the rest, assured that Utah’s comeback would be a success.

On beam, Maile O’Keefe wasn’t perfect as she is wont to do, but outside of a shuffle on her landing she was basically flawless, earning a 9.95 that set the stage for Gilstrap’s noteworthy routine.

Not to be forgotten was McCallum’s bar routine. In a meet that wasn’t the McCallum’s best — especially not recently — the Olympic silver medalist was the only Red Rock to break the 9.9 barrier on bars. Her’s was, statistically, the best bar routine of the entire competition, made all the more impressive by the fact that her teammates did very little to set the stage for her.

Smith deserves special recognition, though.

After her meet-opening mistakes, she rallied individually to score a 9.90 on beam, followed by a 9.90 on floor, capped off by her 9.95 on vault.

It was a bounce back performance that Utah needed. And one that she would have been forgiven for not pulling off.

“She came back and did incredible on her next three events,” Dockendorf said. “That speaks to who she is as a person, her character and her desire to win. She wasn’t going to give up. She loves to compete. She loves to win. And she used that first rotation, that mistake that she made, to really step up for the team.”

Adjustments to make

Obviously Utah can’t compete bars at the level it did Sunday in a couple of weeks at the NCAA gymnastics championships. That sort of performance again will surely lead to a hasty exit for the Red Rocks, who will compete against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida and No. 8 Alabama in their national semifinal.

Nerves were a big issue in that rotation, as was a lack of stuck landings.

Smith’s missed cast handstand was an obvious mistake too, but Dockendorf didn’t bemoan it. It was indicative of aggression, which is essential to get the highest scores. Sabado’s miscue was a result of conservative gymnastics, meanwhile, understandable in the situation but not ideal or wanted.

Falls of any sort will need to disappear if Utah is to have any hope of advancing to the national championship meet.

On beam, there were uncharacteristic wobbles, notably from Abby Paulson, and also a shuffled landing by O’Keefe. Those mistakes are rare from that duo, to be fair.

And though vault was key to Utah’s comeback, there still was a lack of stuck landings. Only Smith and Rucker stuck their efforts, with Gilstrap and Ella Zirbes both under-rotating their vaults. Ashley Glynn had a less damaging step forward on her vault and McCallum hopped on her landing, mistakes that didn’t hurt Utah on Sunday but will against the Sooners, Gators and Crimson Tide.

Utah has supreme confidence in itself and its training, though. At this point in the season you have to or you’ll go home.

“You have to trust in your training and trust in one another,” Dockendorf said. “You can never go back and change the mistakes that happen.”

The takeaway

Utah advanced. Nothing from Sunday’s competition matters more than that. The Red Rocks are headed to nationals again, and the streak remains alive.

Can Utah be better? Of course. The Red Rocks were nowhere near their best against the Gators, Tigers and Spartans, from the beginning of the meet to the end.

Notably, though, Utah weathered extreme nerves and significant mistakes and rallied from what could have been an insurmountable deficit. The Red Rocks proved themselves one of the best teams in the country, by doing what was necessary to advance.

Things get significantly harder from here on out, but as O’Keefe said after the meet, “Regionals is high pressure, nationals is high enjoyment.”

High pressure is over. Now it is time to let the fun begin.