Ute gymnasts emulate football
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Can Louie Sakoda and Brian Johnson help Utah's gymnastics team win a national championship?

Yes they can, say Utah's gymnasts.

Utah's gymnasts saw first-hand the hard work Utah's football players put into their 2008 season's preparation as the teams worked out in the same facilities this summer. They saw them puking as they hit their personal limits, they saw them running and they saw the long hours they logged in the weight room.

It was a different approach Utah's gymnasts took this summer, to spend so much time outside of their own gym and work out with other athletes. Being surrounded by all that hard work made Utah's gymnasts work that much harder too, they say.

"It was cool just to be around other athletes who were training hard," senior Kristina Baskett said.

Now, after watching Utah's history-making run to its 13-0 mark and Sugar Bowl win, Baskett and her teammates are drawing inspiration from the football players.

All season they saw how the Utes set out to prove the nation wrong and then succeed in their biggest bowl by manhandling Alabama.

If the football team can go undefeated and pound an SEC team, why couldn't they do the same thing too, the gymnasts wonder.

The Utes get their first shot at an SEC team Monday when they compete at Georgia, which has won the last four titles.

Utah has 10 national titles but hasn't won since 1995, making the Utes feel every bit as much of an underdog team as their football team was.

"We started second behind Georgia and no one expects us to win," Beth Rizzo said. "It's just like their Sugar Bowl. It shows it doesn't matter what the rest of the nation thinks of you or what your ranking is. It shows that on that day it is up to you and your preparation, so we want to be prepared as much as we can."

Baskett, who considers Johnson one of her biggest role models, emulates his intense focus on taking the season week by week.

Weekly results aren't as crucial in gymnastics, as average scores and not wins and losses qualify teams for nationals, but improving every week is.

"We can't look ahead or worry about something else," she said.

There is a matter of school pride too, the Utes got swept up in Utah's undefeated run as much as avid fans did and now they want to do their part to keep Utah in the forefront. That saying 'success breeds success' is a cliche for a reason.

"It's like Florida was in '07 when their football, basketball and gymnastics were good," Rizzo said. "There is a reason programs are like that because you get this feeling of being proud of your school and you want to keep it going. It's inspiring to see a team like ours succeed and everyone is doubting them. So what if people don't think we are going to beat Georgia or win. It doesn't mean that is how it's going to be."

If the Utes win it all would they consider Johnson as a possible MVP for his inspiration? Not a bad idea, as long as they don't stick him in a leotard.

lwodraska@sltrib.com