The 2016 season did not end how the Utah Red Rocks would have liked. They failed to win the Pac-12 Championship and finished ninth at the NCAA Championships due to struggles on the balance beam. To start the 2017 season, the Red Rocks looked excellent on the balance beam against Michigan, posting a 49.225 on the event. All six of the gymnasts competing on beam scored at least a 9.80 or better. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2012, Utah has not posted a higher beam score in the opening meet of a season than they did against Michigan. In that time span, Utah has won two Pac-12 Championships and placed second at the NCAA Championships.
On the beam routines in the meet against Michigan, co-head coach Megan Marsden said, “We are very excited to see the confidence on beam. We haven't had a beam team that has done balance beam how that group of girls on Saturday did in many years.”
Utah was buoyed on beam thanks to having both sophomore Kari Lee and junior Maddie Stover healthy. Lee, who missed most of last season with an Achilles tendon tear, competed for the first time in almost a year. Stover was able to compete last season despite a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. The shoulder injury forced Stover to change her main pass on the beam last season. With Lee, Stover, and senior Baely Rowe, Utah has three “beamers” which Marsden says “when I say a beamer that's kind of code for it's just natural,” to anchor Utah to on the event. Having so many beamers gives the younger gymnasts competing in the event confidence, which is a key on beam. Rowe, who anchored the beam for Utah, received a standing ovation from the Huntsman Center crowd for her 9.925 on beam.
Getting Lee back was not just a boost because of her talent on beam according to Stover. “We love having Kari Lee back out not only her talent but her bubbly personality,” said Stover. She is popular with her teammates, and having her in the lineup provides the team with a boost in multiple ways because of her ability to hit big scores and uplift her teammates. Lee, who earned All-American honors on beam, floor, and vault, is getting a second chance at her sophomore season because she was given a medical redshirt after missing the final 10 meets last season.
Despite both coming off surgeries, Lee and Stover both worked hard in rehab to get ready for the season, especially on beam. Lee said her teammates have been very supportive if her Achilles does not allow her to participate fully during practice. Neither is ready to compete on floor yet, with both hoping to come back around the middle of the season. Nerves were not a problem for either gymnast. Both Lee and Stover said they felt “calm” and “excited” to return to competition this season.
“I consider myself a beamer and it's definitely my event where I have been able to show most of my success here at Utah up on the balance beam,” said Stover.
According to Marsden, who coaches beam, elite NCAA gymnasts can do all of the skills required on the beam, but confidence is key because the beam is different from other events.
“[Confidence is] one big factor. Most athletes at this level can do the skills that are in their beam routine. It’s can you do them when the moment is at hand, when the judges are there, when the people are in the stands, when the other team is competing against you. I would say that certainly is the task at hand on all the events, but on my event, it becomes harder due to the fact that it moves more slowly. The length of time is a minute to a minute 30 that they're up there. That is a lot of time for your mind to wander. When you're running down the vault runway, usually you can say a word before you go, and it is over in a heartbeat. A bar routine is over pretty quickly. Floor exercise is not quite as technical. You’re on a big square 40 by 40. You have music to help and dancing that you're trying to make sure you do so your mind doesn’t wander as much. On balance beam, it is really easy to venture into some negative thoughts which can play havoc with those relatively simple moves staying on the beam.”
On Saturday night against Michigan, the Red Rocks had that all-important confidence on the beam. Each gymnast hit, and Lee said they all built on what the gymnasts before them did on the event. Marsden said the way the gymnasts moved “oozed confidence.”
“They didn't act like they were waiting to see if they were going to be ok on the element they just knew they were going to be ok on the landing. They ooze confidence in the way they moved.”
Five of the six gymnasts who competed on beam against Michigan were on the team last season. Even though sophomores MaKenna Merrell and Sabrina Schwab did not compete on beam last season, they saw how struggles on beam prevented the team from achieving its goals. The Red Rocks expect to be excellent on every event, but there was a little extra emphasis on beam because of how 2016 ended according to Marsden.
“I know for sure older girls on the team and even someone like McKenna and Sabrina who entered into the lineup. They were both here last year they weren't on beam at the national championships but they watched what happened and it affected their whole team and so they were affected by that and I do think it was their mission along with Maddie [Stover], Kari Lee, and Baely [Rowe] to bring the beam team along in the offseason and to be a better beam team so I thank those older girls for really making it kind of their mission over the offseason,” said Marsden
So, what offseason work did the Red Rocks do? To become more confident, the coaches made sure the gymnasts were comfortable with being uncomfortable. They did pressure sets. A pressure set is where the gymnast either has to hit their routine two or more times in a row. If they fall, they have to start over. They also will have each gymnast in the lineup have to hit their routine, and if one falls, they start over. This simulates the pressure the gymnasts face in a meet. The coaches also had the gymnasts use different beams from usual. It changes up the visuals and gives a slightly different feel. All of this helps the gymnasts with being comfortable being uncomfortable.
In addition to more pressure sets, Stover said that they started doing routines earlier and the coaches were tougher on the gymnasts. This was evident at the Red Rocks Preview in December, with the team doing full routines. Having a top 10 opponent to start the season also helped the gymnasts give a little extra in the offseason.
“We were a little harder on ourselves and the coaches were little more tough on us just getting a physically and mentally prepared for season coming up knowing that we were going against Michigan. We know we're good but you know they're good too so we had to be ready to go,” said Stover.
When you combine more rigorous training with increased passion from Utah’s elite gymnasts, you get a result like what fans witnessed Saturday night. Utah posted their best opening meet beam score since before they joined the Pac-12. The Red Rocks will compete on the road for the first time on Friday at BYU.