College Gymnastics: Time away works wonders for Ute

Much-needed layoff: Freshman phenom Kim has rediscovered her passion
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Burnt out on gymnastics. Taking a year off from competition. Considering turning down multiple college scholarship offers.

That's where Nina Kim was two years ago.

Fast-forward to the Utes' season opener on Jan. 7 at UCLA and there she is, saving Utah's meet by scoring a 9.725 on the uneven bars after two of her teammates fall. There she is again coming through after another teammate falls, delivering a 9.85 on the balance beam.

Move ahead again to Utah's meet last Friday at Washington. Once more, two teammates ahead of her fall, this time on the balance beam. Again, she steadies the Utes, scoring a 9.725.

Nina Kim is the same person she was two years ago, but the same gymnast? Not even close.

Kim, who makes her Utah debut in the Huntsman Center on Friday against Nebraska, has found a new love for her old sport.

"I feel fresh now, and I love it even more than ever," Kim said.

"I'm ready to do whatever it takes for the team."

Which, in Utah's first two meets, meant stopping a rotation from becoming a disaster.

Kim came to Utah as the most heralded recruit since, well, Ashley Postell last year. Postell had a phenomenal rookie season, hitting her first 43 routines, placing third at the NCAA Championships in the all-around and earning All-American honors for every event.

Asking anyone to match that kind of impact is unfair, but Kim could do it. The two have more in common than just great gymnastics skills. Both went through a time when they were so tired of the sport it wasn't fun anymore. After injuries kept her from pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Postell took time off to let her body recover.

Kim trained but didn't compete in 2005, allowing herself a needed mental break.

Her absence from the sport didn't scare away recruiters from such schools as UCLA, Georgia, Alabama and, of course, Utah. She settled on the Utes after meeting the coaching staff, then took a month off during the summer from training before she came to Salt Lake City.

"I've never had a break like that before, ever," she said of the sport she had been active in since she was 5 years old.

Utah coach Greg Marsden says there was no risk in signing Kim.

"We knew, like Ashley, that if Nina still had the fire in her heart, she could be a great contributor to the program," he said. "She has the potential to be one of the best college gymnasts in the country.""

For Kim, the hard part wasn't staying out of the gym - she needed the break. It was coming back with lowered expectations.

"The coaches have whipped me back into shape," Kim said. "But I'm never going to take a big break like that again because it was too hard coming back and not being able to do what I did before."

Because she still wasn't in top shape, Marsden thought about watering down Kim's uneven-bars dismount for the opener against UCLA. He elected not to, but did put her in the middle of the bars lineup, where he thought she'd be safe - no pressure to lead off strong and no pressure to make a big ending.

So much for that plan. Falls by Katie Kivisto and Postell put the squeeze on the rookie.

"Obviously she's a gamer," Marsden said. "I don't know how it could be a tougher situation. Here you are in front of your friends on UCLA's team. You know it's a team you'll be competing with at the end of season, so you want to have a good meet. It's your first college meet, you're doing a routine with a dismount you've only done a couple times and then the two in front of you fall. For her to hit that routine like she did was huge in my eyes."

Kim had been in pressure situations before - you don't spend four years on the national team without being in some. But this time it was different in that she was a member of a true team, not just competing as an individual under a country's flag. She learned the benefits of having teammates in that first meet.

"I let 'Queenie' calm me down," she said of junior Nicolle Ford. "She told me just to do what I do every day and not think about it too much. I trained with a lot of girls [in the past], but if you'd ask the upperclassmen for help, they'd tell you they had to worry about themselves."

Kim's learning she can depend on her teammates, just as much as she's shown they can depend on her.


Year: Freshman

Hometown: Houston

Events: Competes in all-around

Experience: Was a four-year member of the U.S. national team before taking a year off from competition

Notable: Won the balance beam at the 2004 American Classic

Home opener

No. 6 Nebraska

at No. 3 Utah

FRIDAY, 7 p.m.,

Huntsman Center