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Almost every morning at 5:45 a.m., Utah junior Kristen Riffanacht goes to the gymnastics practice facility and works out for 45 minutes by herself. She'll do a variety of cardio, core strength and flexibility exercises.
Sometimes, a teammate will join her, such as freshman Jessica Duke, but often it is only Riffanacht, the chalk and exercise equipment keeping one another company.
Riffanacht's routine isn't borne out of some punishment for not making grades or skipping classes, as some early-morning sessions are, nor does she do it in an effort to get ahead of her teammates.
She is just staying even.
With teammates such as Ashley Postell, Annabeth Eberle and Nicolle Ford on Utah's team, athletes who spent several years competing at the elite level, Riffanacht is in a battle every week to make the lineup.
Gymnastics naturally is a little harder for her than it is for them, but Riffanacht, who was named the team's most inspirational gymnast last year, doesn't mind the extra work.
"I have to remember that everyone of us is different," she said. "I'm determined to work hard, and if I want something bad enough, nothing gets in my way."
Except, sometimes, herself. And there is the complicated hitch. Riffanacht is the kind of athlete who will remain in the gym, doing routine after routine, until it's just right. Her willingness to do that is a large part of her success, but it can be a downfall, too. Once the meet starts, Riffanacht can put so much pressure on herself to duplicate her excellence in practice, it leaves her in a bundle of bunched nerves.
"If you contract on one side, you have to relax the other," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "With her, sometimes she wants everything to be so perfect, everything contracts, and she isn't as fluid as she needs to be."
For Riffanacht, one of the Utes' most explosive and powerful gymnasts, doing the big skills hasn't been a problem, it is being relaxed enough to do them well regularly.
"At the club level, I didn't worry about being extremely consistent," Riffanacht said. "I've definitely learned I have to be consistent since I've been here."
With the season drawing to an end, Utah's last regular season meet is today at Brigham Young, Riffanacht is finally balancing that line between being hard on herself, but not too hard, as well as she balances on the beam.
Riffanacht is working with team sport psychologist Keith Henschen using visualization techniques to lessen all those tensed up muscles.
"He has given me a lot of different mind-sets to think about," Riffanacht said. "I don't think about making mistakes, I do it one skill at a time. On beam and bars I get this angry look, I just know I'll hit."
Riffanacht's extra work is turning into positive results. She has only fallen off the beam once this year, and she has scored a 9.8 or better on the event in Utah's last five meets.
"I told her she would never compete on beam for us, then she goes out and makes a liar out of me," Marsden said. "That is just a great example of her determination. She has the [consistency] issue resolved on that event, she just has to do that on the other three."
Riffanacht seems to be getting there, earning a spot in the floor lineup the last two meets and scoring a 9.85 and a 9.95.
"Earlier in the year, I got down on myself, I wanted it too much," Riffanacht said. "Now I'm doing less numbers and work more on the mental approach. I'm having fun with it."
Her dedication has affected others too. Duke roomed with Riffanacht over the Christmas break, saw how hard she worked, and modeled herself after the upperclassman.
"She has a fire about her and the way she motivates herself," said Duke, who is becoming a regular contributor on the vault and bars. "I wasn't even close to being in the lineup at Christmas, she was really a motivator for me and taught me how to work harder."
Utah at BYU
TONIGHT, 7 P.M. (BYU-TV), MARRIOTT CENTER
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
UTAH: After an illness that lasted two weeks, Rachel Tidd is finally healthy and probably will compete in the all-around. Gabi Onodi has a tender ankle and might only compete on the balance beam.
BYU: This is the last home meet for seniors Genevieve Claveau, Marie-Helene Claveau, Jaime Mabray and Kirsten Pauga.
Kristen Riffanacht file
* Second-team All-American on vault and balance beam
* Co-captain with Annabeth Eberle
* Utah's Most Inspirational Gymnast for 2004 season