Perhaps no one knows the history and passion that comes with being a University of Utah gymnast better than the Utes' co-head coach Megan Marsden. She has seen both sides of competition, first as an all-around gymnast for Utah and then as a coach alongside husband, Greg, for the past 30 years. It's that kind of knowledge and experience that is guiding her and her team through a summer filled with new faces, a very difficult past loss and the wide-open potential of the coming season.
Now halfway through the summer, the University of Utah women's gymnastics team has been practicing together with both returning and new gymnasts for almost two weeks. Marsden explains that summer practices for the gymnasts are optional, but most of the team chooses to attend them in order to work on their conditioning and new routines. Even though it's the off-season, the coaches are allowed to be at the practices as a safety precaution, but they can't require the gymnasts to be there or design their training regimen. Marsden says that for a competitive gymnast, this year-round practice schedule is nothing new. In club gymnastics, athletes train and compete year round, and the constant training helps the gymnasts maintain optimal fitness and consistency.
Things are pretty calm now with the women just attending classes followed by the relatively low-key workouts, but it took a while to get to this point. After a devastating seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships this past spring, Marsden knew that women might need the usual end of season mental and physical two-week break more than usual.
"We knew they had had a huge disappointment, "she said. "We didn't want them to just back in."
But the Utes have responded well and are back in the Dumke Gymnastics Center ready to prepare for next season. Marsden is excited about the four new freshmen that are on campus and interested to see how they work with the team.
"It's always exciting to get some new blood and it's also scary," she said. "You hope they transition well."
Marsden has assessed her new gymnasts a lot during the recruiting process and excited about the individual strengths each one brings. First off, she speaks off Maddy Stover, who hails from the Los Angeles area, and is expected to be a solid all-arounder for the Utes.
"She has a beautiful execution," Marsden said.
Marsden notes Stover's attention to detail, with rarely a bent leg or unpointed toe during competition.
"You're rewarded for that on the college level," Marsden said.
Houston native Sammy Partyka is another promising new Ute. Partyka was making some noise in in the elite scene, but then had to drop back to Level 10 (the highest level in gymnastics before the elite level) while battling a bulging disk in her back. With that elite exposure, Marsden says that she has the most experience at all levels and can perform the most difficult gymnastics of the four freshman.
Then there's Tiffany Lewis, who comes to the Utes from Las Vegas. According to Marsden, Lewis is a "strong level-10 gymnast that has had an unbelievable year." Especially considering that the year prior, Lewis had a wrist injury that took the entire year to heal.
Rounding out the group is Kari (pronounced Car-ee) Lee of Phoenix, Ariz. Her parents own and manage a gymnastics club in Phoenix and all of her siblings have been level-10 gymnasts. Lee actually recruited herself to Utah. Lee always wanted to compete for the Utes, said Marsden, and did everything she could to improve to the level of a Utah gymnast.
"It's been her dream to come to the University of Utah," Marsden said.
The rest of the summer will be devoted to getting the new gymnasts up to speed and ready. By August the Utes will "hit the ground running," so how fast the new recruits adjust and progress will determine how they can expect to perform for the Utes. The returning women and the coaches have designed a bridge program of sorts to aid in this process where the older women mentor the younger ones. Because the contributions of the four will be so crucial, the coaches and the rest of the team must make the transition their primary goal.
After that on the priority list is making sure that the women are all healthy and ready to compete when the season begins. Kassandra Lopez will be returning now that her torn Achilles has healed and the other Utes are well rested and hoping for a healthy season ahead.
And then of course, is making sure the team is mentally prepared for this season. After the bitter end to last season, this item has become more prominent then in other years. For the Marsdens, addressing the mental side of things is paramount.
"That is something Greg and I stress with our teams," said Marsden. "We've tried to have a mental aspect."
This aspect has come in the form of an outside psychologist who has provided the Utes with mental tools to help the women be prepared in those mentally demanding moments. Marsden said that the mental challenges around winning the Pac-12 Championships and then failing to make the Super Six at the national championship is a prime example of how important those mental tools are needed in tough moments.
"We didn't see it coming, because it was building," Marsden said.
Marsden said that it was literally, "devastating," in those first 24 to 28 hours after the team did not make it into the final round of competition. But in those weeks since, work with the psychologist and mentally dealing with the shock has helped the Utes to move on and focus on the future.
"You have to acknowledge the work that goes in and that it didn't work out," Marsden said.
Being able to clear these types of hurdles is something that isn't foreign to the Utes. The Utes have claimed nine NCAA National Championship titles, a strong fan following as one the country's rare women's revenue producing sports, and decade's worth of big wins and All-American athletes, the University of Utah women's gymnastics team has set the bar very high.
"We created our own monster," Marsden said.
This means that when the Utes do have failures such as the one this year at nationals, it is a big letdown. No other team at the university is expected year and year out to either win the national championship or at least have a top finish in the same way as the gymnasts. The Utes are the only school in NCAA that has been at the national championships every year since it has been in existence.
"We are cemented in the tradition of being at the championships every year," Marsden said.
It's a unique level of pressure and one that the Marsdens must manage. Marsden explains that the level of competition and number of high level teams competing has grown substantially over the years, making those sky-high expectations even more daunting for the Utes.
"We try to make them feel like a championship is not the bar that we've had a great year," Marsden said.
Of course even though the team might accept that philosophy, it might take a little longer for fans to understand, but Marsden is realistic about both her team's limits and potential. The top ten teams in the country are very tight in terms of their talent level. Score sheets show most of them finishing most competitions mere four-tenths apart in point differentials. The Utes know that a national championship is within their sights very year, but Marsden also knows that these days, it's gonna take a lot of fight and more than a little luck to get there.