In tenths of a second, a gymnast has to contort her body to safely complete twists, turns and somersaults. A coach's mind has to work even faster: Is the gymnast going to complete the skill? Does she need a little bump to make the rotation? Worse yet, does she need help bailing out of the trick?
The task of helping a gymnast get through a maneuver is called spotting, and it's probably the most underappreciated but important job a coach has.
"I know my life has been saved a few times when I was going low," Utah senior Kristen Riffanacht said. "One time I missed a punch front on the floor and landed on the back of my head. I don't want to think about what would have happened without a spot."
Spotters closely follow a gymnast through her routine, sometimes offering a bump to her them a little more umph, or acting as a safety net if a skill goes wrong.
"It can be tricky, judging what is needed," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "The hardest skills to spot are the complex somersaulting, twisting ones. You have to be careful not to get in the way when you're trying to help because you can create as much of a problem as you're trying to avoid."
In practice, spotters' jobs are made a bit easier with the development of overhead belts and foam pits. However, in competitions a gymnast's safety is still literally in the hands of the spotter.
Former Utah assistant coach Aki Hummel made one potentially life-saving spot at the 1996 NCAA Championships when gymnast Traci Sommer hit her head on the top bar and was falling the floor head first. He reached out and snatched her out of the air.
For some, having a spotter gives them a necessary comfort level to try a big skill. Junior Nicolle Ford won't vault unless Marsden is standing next to the vault.
"I have some mental issues with it," she said. "He has to be there. I have to trust the person and get comfortable with them. It takes me awhile."
With a good spot, a gymnast can avoid a serious injury. But the spotter is at a risk, too. One year, Marsden tore a tendon in his biceps giving former Utah gymnast Angie Leonard a spot, an injury that required surgery.
Because of the physical demands, few spotters are women. Utah associate head coach Megan Marsden, a 5-foot former gymnast, doesn't spot for two reasons: She's not comfortable doing so with her small stature, and she simply isn't interested in learning the skill.
The Utes' spotting duties fall mainly on Greg Marsden and assistant Jeff Graba, a former gymnast who replaced Hummel this year after Hummel left the program to pursue a business opportunity.
"One of my concerns with Jeff when we hired him was that he isn't that tall, he's only about 5-5," Megan Marsden said. "He's much different from Aki, who was about 6 feet tall, but he's strong. He met with all of the girls, and they seemed comfortable with him, that was important."
The intricacies of spotting require familiarity between the gymnast and a spotter. No stranger, not even one with world-class coaching credentials, is going to walk into a gym and automatically be trusted to give a spot on a difficult skill. There has to be a break-in period before an athlete will put her life in his hands.
"Every coach has their own way of spotting and you have to get comfortable with them," Riffanacht said. "When I first came to college, I was really nervous to be spotted by someone else."
Minnesota at Utah
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