U. better believe it

Duke striving in living her dream as a Ute
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jessica Duke remembers watching the University of Utah gymnastics team compete on Friday nights at the Huntsman Center as a 9-year-old.

Over the years, the young gymnast followed heroes such as Shannon Bowles, Theresa Kulikowski and Annabeth Eberle intently.

Now, 10 years after she first became a fan, local youngsters are watching Duke in the same way. She is performing right where many of her role models did.

"There was really no question that Utah was my first choice," Duke said, "[It was] the program, the coaches, the history of University of Utah gymnastics. . . . I just always wanted to go to the U."

Duke comes from an athletic family and got involved in sports early. Although her three older brothers - and later, two younger sisters - all signed up for soccer, Duke began her tot tumbling class when she was 3 years old. By the age of 7, Duke began competing with teams.

When Duke's father, Jeff, took a new job, the family relocated from Florida to Utah when she was 9. Following the advice of her coaches in Florida, Duke looked into the Olympus School of Gymnastics. It paid off.

It was at Olympus that Duke was introduced to coaches Mary Wright and Ryan Kirkham. Wright is one of the most esteemed coaches and choreographers in the business, having coached 10 Olympians. She has been part of the U.S. National Team coaching staff for a decade.

Wright's coaching, both at Olympus and Utah, has made a big impact on Duke's young career.

"She's so amazing at choreography," Duke said, "It's nice to be able to work with her."

Whether it was good coaching or natural talent, Duke began making an impression on the national and international scale.

In 2000, at just 15, Duke qualified for the International Elite, one of the highest honors of amateur gymnastics in the U.S. That same year, Duke was named national all-around champion at the Junior Olympics.

Duke really showed her stuff again in 2003, taking her talent to the Utah-Moscow Games, a youth replica of the Olympics. In Russia, Duke won the floor routine, took third on the bars, and fifth in all-around.

Between 2003 and 2004, Duke racked up three more top-10 finishes at the Junior Olympics and both years she competed on the championship team.

Duke was met with high expectations when she joined the Utah team.

"We had an opportunity to watch her develop and always thought she would be a good addition to our program," said Utah coach Greg Marsden. "It's always good to have local talent, especially when they are able to help us be competitive at the highest level, and Jessica is certainly able to do that."

Duke's progress before and at the college level has drawn comparisons to another local star, six-time All-American Deidra Graham. Duke remembers admiring Graham and is hesitant to try measuring herself up to one of her heroes.

"She was one of my role models in the gym. I liked watching her and I wanted to be there," Duke said. "[The comparisons] are really scary. It's kind of hard, but I guess it's kind of cool because she was so amazing. To be even compared to her is really flattering."

While nagging injuries held Duke back from being able to train and compete as much as she would have liked last season, she was able to perform well when given the chance.

Duke was able to represent the Red Rocks in two events at nationals this past season and was even able to tie her career best on her bar routine with a 9.825 score. Duke is eager to keep contributing to her team next season and looks forward to her next nationals appearance.

"I want to get in on another event and compete three or four," Duke said, "[My goals] are getting stronger and getting new individual skills. Also, getting those skills early and upgrading my routine."

So has the team she dreamed about joining as a 9-year-old lived up to everything she imagined?

"I love it. When we go to meets away [from home], and there are only hundreds of fans, instead of thousands, it's harder to get motivated. To have such a big crowd every Friday, it's awesome."