It may be a little awkward, but it’s the new norm this gymnastics season

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe looks at her teammates after finishing a perfect 10 beam routine during a gymnastics meet against Boise State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. The Utah Red Rocks won.
Utah’s Maile O’Keefe looks at her teammates after finishing a perfect 10 beam routine during a gymnastics meet against Boise State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. The Utah Red Rocks won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Standing alone on the balance beam, the eyes of 10,000-plus focused squarely on her, Abby Paulson paused.

It was brief, only enough of a break for a quick breath, and then with a wave of her arms she threw herself off the apparatus, spinning and twisting as requisite for a gainer full dismount.

The landing was nearly flawless, as Paulson’s feet — shoulder width apart — stuck to the mat on the floor of the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City as though they were lathered with stickum.

She threw her arms up in the air, head thrown back, smile emblazoned on her face and then she did something new for those fans who’ve watched her compete on beam for four years at the University of Utah.

Paulson put her hands together and formed the signature U, displayed often by Red Rocks in the past during beam and floor routines, and then she held it. And held it. And held it some more, before finally breaking her stance with a jump to the left and a salute to the judges, followed by another jump and salute to right and then a sprint to the awaiting and outstretched arms of her teammates.

The episode wasn’t unique, at least not when it came to the finish specifically.

Throughout Utah’s season opener against Boise State, whenever Red Rocks dismounted the uneven bars and beam or landed their vaults, they would hold their salutes usually while flashing the U.

There was good reason for it.


A new rule this gymnastics season requires gymnasts to hold the “finishing position” for at least a second after after their dismount or they will incur a half a tenth of a point deduction.

It may not seem like much, but the rule change is significant in a sport that measures itself to the minutest details.

“It is definitely a huge change,” Utah senior and reigning NCAA all-around champion Maile O’Keefe said.

“It has definitely been an adjustment,” added sophomore Ashley Glynn, a transfer from Temple.

The why is varied.

For one, gymnasts agree that holding the finishing position after their routines is uncomfortable, even awkward.

“Just how long you have to stand there and hold it,” O’Keefe said.

Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf agrees.

“I think it does look awkward, to be honest,” she said.

In an attempt to combat that, Utah has incorporated the U in their dismounts.

“To hopefully help them stay in the moment,” Dockendorf said.

“Just to give us that extra half second hold at the top,” added O’Keefe.

The flashing of the U., has a second purpose, to inhibit, albeit briefly, the excitement of gymnasts who previously would have sprinted off the mat to celebrate with the teammates post routine.

“We wanted to help them not be so excited to run and high five their teammates,” Dockendorf said.

That is easier said than done, though.

“I honestly think in a meet the hardest part is your teammates wanting to run out to you,” junior Amelie Morgan said. “Cause we practice in the gym every day and it is a lot easier when you are just working by yourself doing your routines. It is easy to hold it. When people are running up to you and you are excited and want to celebrate it is harder to remember to hold it.”

So why was the rule added in the first place? What was wrong with how gymnasts previously operated following dismounts, which usually meant over-the-top celebrations?

Well many gymnasts had grown crafty — one could argue they’ve always been — and proven adept at concealing mistakes from judges, mistakes that otherwise would be difference between wins and defeats, and especially championships.


Add in a huge jump in the amount of perfect 10s earned — 84 were awarded last season alone — and there seemed to be a real issue with how to separate good routines from great routines, and great routines from perfect ones.

The finishing rule change has the chance to do just that.

“It used to be if you were a little off (on your landing) you could throw your head back and play it off like it was great,” Paulson said. “Now there is going to be a lot of separation between somebody who actually sticks their dismount and holds it well and the people who are kind of sticking it but are able to play it off well.”

Added Dockendorf: “I think it will help separate some of those questionable landings, where you wonder, ‘Did she really hold it, did she really show control?’ As long as judges continue to take it, right? It will, maybe, help separate some of those 10s that maybe weren’t a really solid and controlled landing.”

Utah has been practicing for the new rules in the build up to the season, but the results were hit and miss against the Broncos.

Perhaps the most difficult event was vault, where gymnasts often forgot to reset following steps forward or back on their landings, and by forgetting that failed to hold the finishing position long enough and earned deductions.

Those deductions often made little sense to the hometown fans, but that is the reality of a new rule. It will take time and practice for gymnasts to get it down, and just as long for audiences to grow accustomed to it.

“It is going to be something we continue to practice,” Dockendorf said. “We do it in our conditioning, we emphasize it every day in our routines. It just needs to become a habit and I think for the audience too. Eventually it will kind of be the norm, but it is something we will continue to focus on.”