Utah Gymnastics: The decline of a superpower?

Utah has 10 titles, but none since 1995, forcing the program to examine why it can't meet its old standards
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Utah gymnast Nicolle Ford takes a quick glance over her shoulder at the 10 red and white national championship banners hanging in the practice facility, rolls her eyes and snarls.

"We had nothing to do with those," she says. "They're a reminder of what we haven't had, a reminder that we have the history and the talent and everything we need to get one of those banners."

The banners are simple pieces of cloth with the words "NCAA Champions" and the year etched in white into a red background. They've come to represent so much more.

They're a symbol of Utah's past success - the program has won more national titles than any other and is the only one to qualify for the national championships each of the last 31 years - but they're also a constant reminder of how long it has been since the Utes hoisted the championship trophy. The Utes haven't won since 1995. Previously, Utah's longest drought without a national title was three years, from 1987-89.

"We know there is room for one more up there," senior Kristen Riffanacht said. "We talk about it. We want to shove them over and put one more up

there. One of the reasons you come here is for the history, and at the same time we haven't won in a while, but wouldn't it be great to be a part of the team that ended the streak?"

Utah's next chance starts Thursday when it competes in the 2006 NCAA Championships in Corvallis, Ore. Undefeated Georgia is the overwhelming favorite, but Ford said that hasn't stopped people from asking her when Utah will win again.

"They tend to remind us every year about this time," she said. "We know it's now 11 years. Last year, we were supposed to get it done and we didn't. But I try not to put that pressure on us, because we already have a lot of pressure."

The pressure, though, literally hangs over the Utes every day they're in the gym.

With all their achievements, the Utes have put themselves in an elite group such as UCLA basketball or USC football, where expectations are so high, a season that ends in anything but a national title is viewed by some as a disappointment and maybe even a failure by others.

"Oh, I get asked about it all the time," coach Greg Marsden said. "We know we created those expectations and we still feel like we're doing that. We haven't won in a while, but we were third last year and we had a team that was in it, it just wasn't our night."

Utah's third-place showing in 2005 was its best since it finished second in 2000.

Why has it gotten harder for the Utes to win? Parity is one of the biggest reasons, an element that didn't exist when Marsden started the program in 1976 with a group of gymnasts who answered his ad in the paper.

His piecemeal team qualified for nationals and finished 10th, and five years later he won his first of six straight titles.

Now, a team such as UCLA, one filled with Olympians and which has won four of the last six titles, fails to make the cut.

"Back then, we did the best we could do and we were fortunate enough to win, a lot," Marsden said. "It has gotten much more competitive now."

Chris Hill, Utah's director of athletics, said even he has gotten caught up in the "what have you done for me lately" line of thinking when it comes to the gymnastics program, but realizes how hard it is to win a national title.

"Every time Greg goes to regionals, I say 'Good luck,' and I mean it, because it's not automatic anymore," he said. "You try not to take anything for granted, but when you win five or six national titles, it's human nature to come to expect it. We went through that with football and basketball last year."

Utah set a precedent that is hard to match in today's gymnastics world. However, even without a recent championship, the Utes are still considered one of the sport's premier teams.

"I'd just love to have one of his titles, I don't care when it was won," Nebraska coach Dan Kendig said. "He's always in the hunt and he always has great kids. There is no question his is still one of the most respected programs around."

The competition has come two-fold for the Utes. There is more parity at the top of the rankings, and subsequently there is more of a scramble to land the top athletes. And unlike other sports, where there are more than 20 so-called blue chippers a year, gymnastics sometimes has just a few elite, national-team-caliber gymnasts available for the top programs to go after.

Tradition and reputation are a selling point for the Utes, but location isn't. Many of the top clubs are located in the East, so athletes often want to stay closer to home. That's easy to do, with power programs at Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

"It's absolutely not a knock against Utah at all," said Kelli Hill, who runs Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, Md., and has elite gymnasts at those three SEC schools. "They do want to stay closer to home, I don't know why that is. When they do want to take a big hike out, they look at Stanford."

Oh, the Pac-10, Utah's biggest recruiting foe. The recruiting joke that has long evolved around UCLA is that coach Val Kondos-Field doesn't have to go out and recruit, she waits for the Olympians to call her and she'll let them know if she wants them or not.

UCLA not only has tradition, but also the Hollywood atmosphere that appeals as much to gymnasts as a muddy, wind-swept football field appeals to a lineman.

"You can't recruit against UCLA or Stanford; it's impossible," Kendig said. "The good thing is we [he and Marsden] don't get the vacationers, the recruits who go to Florida or Arizona just to get out of whatever weather they're in. We know they're serious if they come on a visit. And at least Greg has mountains in the background to look at."

Utah may not get as many of the Olympians as UCLA, but it still manages to get enough to remain competitive, including world champion Ashley Postell and 2005 Junior Olympic all-around champion Kristina Baskett.

Baskett, from Seattle, considered UCLA, but decided on the Utes because of the program's reputation. Telling her friends she was going to Utah instead of UCLA took some explaining.

"A lot of them were like, 'Why Utah?' " she said. "Most of them were guys who just didn't understand or know about the tradition. At UCLA, you don't feel recruited, you recruit them. Greg and Megan [Marsden] made me feel like they wanted me here and I knew that when I came here, you can't beat the fan support or the facilities."

Marsden acknowledged Utah's streak may not end this year, not with the skill Georgia has shown over the season and the injuries Utah has had, starting with the retirement of All-American Rachel Tidd before the season because of back problems.

As it is, Marsden said Georgia will have to make a mistake for the Utes or anyone else to beat the Gym Dogs.

Next year, if it's fair to talk about next year before this season even ends, could be different. Utah plays host to the 2006 NCAA Championships and the core of its team returns. Utah has signed six gymnasts and two of those, Sarah Shire and Annie DiLuzio, were on the national team.

"On paper, it is one of the strongest classes we've had," Marsden said. "The potential is there."

Others see it too, and have pegged Utah as a team for the future.

"They have Ashley and Nina, and Ashley is a strong leader," said Yevgeny Marchenko, Kim's former coach and co-owner of Plano, Texas' World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, one of the largest clubs in the country. "They have a lot of potential. But one mistake . . . we all know gymnastics is an unpredictable sport."



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