Gymnastics: Utes drop safe philosophy

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The theories of how to win a national gymnastics championship have played out like a wrestling match for so many years. On one side, there was were Alabama and Utah, teams that did what they could to satisfy the level of difficulty required and emphasize consistency. On the other side, there were UCLA and Georgia, teams that pushed the envelope of difficulty, willing to risk consistency to win big.

Well, Utah coach Greg Marsden is finally admitting it: He got pinned.

Marsden, whose teams have won 10 national titles, but none since 1995, said the Utes can no longer win with his old philosophy. Imagine Jazz coach Jerry Sloan throwing out his offense in favor of a playground style of ball or Brigham Young's football team announcing it wasn't going to pass anymore.

"We can't win by playing it safe," Marsden said. "We're going to have to challenge ourselves and push the envelope a bit, but the days of playing it safe and winning are over."

Perhaps there was no better example than last year's national championships. Utah finished third, its highest spot since finishing second in 2000, but aside from an ankle injury that limited Ashley Postell, the Utes performed as well as they expected. Still, they got third, finishing behind Georgia and Alabama.

To do better, Utah needed the leading teams to have a fall or two to move up in the standings. The 1995 Utes, who weren't even expecting to get on the podium at the NCAA championships, won the national title just by hitting their routines as Georgia and several others disintegrated on the last rotation.

"We were handed that championship," Marsden said. "Not one, but three teams had falls. But consistency isn't the separator anymore. Before, you could go to nationals and execute and have a chance to win. But now teams are distinguishing themselves by the level of difficulty they're doing."

The power schools, Georgia and UCLA, have combined to win eight of the last 10 national titles.

Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan agreed with Marsden's assessment.

"It's probably as hard for him as it would be for me not to jump up and down," she said. " . . . [But] I am sure he will realize very quickly it's a lot more fun to push the envelope with difficulty instead of playing it safe."

Nevertheless, saying Utah is ready to be more like Georgia, which comes to Salt Lake City on Monday, is like a Duke basketball player naming a North Carolina baller as his hero. Marsden doesn't see himself going over to the dark side, but melding the two philosophies.

The teams going for more difficulty have become more consistent, forcing the normally safer teams to up their skills, and judges are expecting more difficulty, too.

Utes associate coach Megan Marsden pointed out Shannon Bowles' third-place finish on the floor at the 2002 nationals as a time when judges favored artistry and clean routines almost more than difficult skills.

"She had really weak tumbling, but great artistry," Megan Marsden said. "But judges aren't looking for that as much anymore."

Another Utah great, Theresa Kulikowski, won 13 All-America honors in her career from 1999-2003, putting her in a tie for fourth for the most individual honors nationally. The high mark is 17, shared by former Alabama gymnast Dee Foster and Kentucky's Jenny Hansen. She also won the all-around title as a freshman, and the beam championship twice.

But the emphasis has changed so quickly, Greg Marsden predicted Kulikowski would only be an event specialist if she were coming into school now.

"She was one of the prettiest gymnasts you'll ever see, but she isn't a power athlete like you need now," he said.

Marsden, who said he saw the need for a change several years ago, began recruiting gymnasts with more power, such as Nicolle Ford and Ashley Postell. Postell loves to try new skills out of fear of boredom, and Ford just doesn't like to get beat on anything.

"It's a good idea to pull out all the stops," Ford said. "We should be doing all of our full difficulty all the time. You can't wait until the postseason and try to pull out the big stuff."

Both Ford and Postell have something else - moxie. They are the kinds of gymnasts who will tell you, with smiles on their faces, they're going to beat you.

"We've had very talented, nice girls in the past," Greg Marsden said. "But they haven't always wanted to go out and win at all costs. Last year's team had a little bit of that, but both Ashley and [Ford] are pushing the team to do that."