Advertisement

When will Utah gymnastics be a vault team again?

Utah’s Camie Winger launches off the vault as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Oregon State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Utah won.
Utah’s Camie Winger launches off the vault as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Oregon State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The adage used to be that balance beam was the event that sets the best teams apart in women’s college gymnastics.

It was called the “Great Separator.”

Teams that were elite on beam would win championships, since the difficulty of competing on an event less than four inches wide — on which gymnasts were expected to compete flips, leaps and turns — tended to lead to mistakes by anyone but the very best.

Not anymore, though.

Not because beam has gotten any less difficult. It remains a notable feat every time a gymnast successfully competes a beam routine.

But following a rule change in 2015 that reduced the start value of the common Yurchenko full, vault has become the event that determines championships.

It took a few years for the change to really have an effect, but the last five national champions have illustrated how important vault has become.

  • The 2024 national champion LSU Tigers? They ranked No. 2 on vault this season and scored a 49.400 in the national championship meet, the second highest total in the competition.

  • The 2023 national champion Oklahoma Sooners? They ranked No. 1 in the country on vault and scored a 49.5625 in the national championship meet, the highest total in the competition.

  • The 2022 national champion Oklahoma Sooners? They ranked No. 4 on vault and scored a 49.6625 in the national championship meet, the highest total in the competition.

  • The 2021 national champion Michigan Wolverines? They ranked No. 1 on vault and scored a 49.6500 in the national championship meet, the highest total in the competition.

  • The 2019 national champion Oklahoma Sooners? They ranked No. 1 on vault and scored a 49.6250 in the national championship meet, the highest total in the competition.

No team is more familiar with the concept of vault making or breaking a performance in the national championship than Utah.

The Red Rocks have finished third overall for four straight years, and in each of those seasons it was vault that kept Utah out of contention when the title was on the line.

  • In 2021, it was a lack of 10.0-valued vaults that hurt Utah the most, with both Maile O’Keefe and Cristal Isa competing Yurchenko fulls (start value of 9.95). Utah simply didn’t have the difficulty or potential points available to win it all. The Red Rocks finished with a 49.3875.

  • In 2022, it was falls, steps and a other mistakes across five of six vaults competed by the Red Rocks that led to a 49.2250.

  • In 2023, it was under-rotated vault after under-rotated vault after under-rotated vault — the result of trying too hard for sticks — that led to a 49.1500.

  • And in the latest national championship, it was a fall and a series of steps that led to a 49.3000, a showing that prevented the Red Rocks from holding onto the lead in the final rotation — or from at least giving LSU a fight to the end.

All of these struggles have led vault — and how to improve it — to become the major talking point year-after-year for Utah.

Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf believes the Red Rocks are already a vault team, though.

“Absolutely (we are),” she said. And she may have a point.

This season, Utah had seven vaults competed that had a start value of 10.0 — vaults by Camie Winger, Ella Zirbes, Ashley Glynn, Makenna Smith, Jaedyn Rucker, Grace McCallum and Amelie Morgan. That is by far the most competition-ready 10.0 vaults Utah has had since 2015.

Moreover, the Red Rocks scored at least a 9.9 on four of their six vaults competed in the 2024 national championship. That is equal to the number of 9.9′s Utah scored on vault in the previous three national championships combined.

A fall by Winger and a multiple steps on the landing by Zirbes prevented Utah from an elite vault rotation in the national championship this year, but Dockendorf swears there isn’t a chance either of those gymnasts will make those mistakes again.

“I know that, I’ll place money that Camie and Ella will never vault like that again in a national championship,” Dockendorf said. “It is important that they have those experiences. It is important that three of our four freshmen competed (in the national championship). They need to know what that feels like, good or bad. They need to have those experiences because we are going to rely on them for the next three years. They’ve been here now, they’ve experienced what it feels like, they’ve all felt the pressure and that is going to be critical for us the next three years.”

Next year’s Utah team appears primed to be truly great on vault. A vault team that fans will recognize as such.

The Red Rocks lose only Rucker from the lineup, meaning the team has six 10.0-valued vaults ready for next year. And McCallum’s should improve the further away she gets from the serious knee injury she suffered in the middle of the 2022 season.

So should Glynn’s vault, which was Utah’s best in the national championship. The Temple transfer routinely showcased amplitude and distance rare among the Red Rocks, with consistent landings the only real thing lacking.

The aforementioned Winger and Zirbes should get more consistent with more reps, and both flashed serious potential throughout the season. Both Smith and Morgan have the chance to improve as well, though Smith was already Utah’s most consistent vaulter this season.

Then there is the incoming freshmen class.

No. 1 overall recruit Avery Neff is gifted on all four events, but her ability is most readily apparent on floor and vault. On vault specifically, she has earned a perfect 10 as a Level 10 with a vault that College Gym News has rated as about as ready for NCAA competition as you’ll find.

Fellow five-star recruit Zoe Johnson, meanwhile, is at her best on floor exercise, but vault is probably her second best event. While she may not immediately contribute to Utah’s vault lineup as a freshman, it would be a shock either.

Poppy-Grace Stickler, a Welsh gymnast and British National team member, has multiple vault titles to her name. In 2021, she was the British National Champion on vault and in 2023 she won the vault title at the 2nd Bundesliga championships.

Utah has traditionally excelled on the event that its star gymnast is best at.

For the past five years, that has been beam, O’Keefe’s signature event. Before that, Utah was an great floor exercise, falling in line behind MyKayla Skinner’s strengths. And before that it was uneven bars, led by Georgia Dabritz.

By the looks of things, Utah should be a vault team next season. That is, if the Red Rocks weren’t already.

Utah's Grace McCallum celebrates after competing on the vault during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, April 20, 2024. | Tony Gutierrez
Utah's Grace McCallum celebrates after competing on the vault during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, April 20, 2024. | Tony Gutierrez