Gymnastics: Injuries part of the game

Ouch: Utes know that depth can help overcome setbacks in a sport rife with pain
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Utah coach Greg Marsden sits in a restaurant in Corvallis, Ore., discussing the good problem of finding room for everybody in his lineup.

He mentions that if the Utes stay as healthy as they are, for the first time in several years, Utah will be a contender at nationals on its own merit and will not have to worry what other teams can do.

He doesn't need to finish his thought; everyone knows what he is thinking.

For gymnastics teams, getting to nationals without injuries is as rare as a Utah loss. The second-ranked Utes will play host to No. 3 Michigan in the Huntsman Center at 7 tonight.

Every sport deals with its share of injuries. But gymnastics at the college level has more than most, often rating as high as spring football and wrestling. That's especially true for severe injuries, ones in which athletes are sidelined for seven or more days.

Of course, everything is relative, and gymnasts see no more danger in their sport than they do shopping, usually their other favorite activity.

To them, doing a backflip on a 4-inch wide beam or running full force at a vault and flinging your body over it is fun.

"I'd say Formula One racing or football is more dangerous," Utah senior Gritt Hofmann said. "Gymnastics might be more extreme than yoga, but it's good for your overall fitness level." Only a few souls would look at a contraption such as the uneven bars and actually think getting up on the blasted thing is good for their health.

"You can't think of it as a dangerous sport," sophomore Rachel Tidd said. "You just have to go out and have fun at what you do. Life is dangerous, so you might as well go for it."

Going for it, though, can result in injuries, and making up for the loss of one of your top athletes in gymnastics is harder than other sports. If the top running back for a football team goes down, coaches can change a game plan and go more with a passing attack or use the fullback more. Sure, they'll still miss that running back, but there are things they can do to cover for the loss.

Absences are much more glaring in gymnastics. For instance, when Tidd was diagnosed with mononucleosis just before nationals last year, the Utes simply had no one who could match her level of difficulty. So, in the judges' eyes, the Utes were behind about eight-tenths of a point from what they normally would have had, even before they stepped on the floor.

Her absence was most glaring on the uneven bars, where Utah had little depth, and two of its first three competitors fell.

"We went from having a girl who was capable of winning the whole thing to using someone we hoped could just get through the routine," Marsden said. "We were out of it after the first three competitors, and our team is intelligent, there was no way of fooling them and motivating them with some 'we-can-still-win-this-thing' speech."

For now, the Utes are as deep as they've ever been, with little dropoff in skills among their top four to five gymnasts on each event, and with three others who are almost as strong.

"It's a good situation to be in for us to put the best team possible on the floor," Marsden said. "You can see them looking around; they're concerned about what they're doing and if its what they need to do to make the lineup. They're pushing themselves to have a chance to compete."

Such depth will allow Marsden to rest some gymnasts if he feels they need it or hold someone out if he feels they simply didn't have a good week of practice. However, there are meets, such as tonight's when Utah will go all out.

"Competing against teams like Michigan is good for the psyche," he said. "These are the kinds of meets where it will probably come down to the last routine."

Tonight's gymnastics

No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Utah

7 p.m., Huntsman Center

THE MATCHUP: Michigan has won the past two dual meets against the Utes, including a 196.725-196.35 decision last year, Utah's only regular-season loss.


* Michigan's Elise Ray, a 2000 Olympian who is ranked second behind Utah's Rachel Tidd on the uneven bars, is expected to compete in the all-around for the first time this year. A shoulder injury has stopped her in other


* Utah's Kristen Riffanacht has a hamstring strain and will be held out of competition. Tidd will compete in the all-around for the first time this year.

ELSEWHERE: No. 16 SUU at Centenary, 8 p.m.