Utah Gymnastics Looking To Move Forward From Chaotic Off-Season

Dec 14, 2023, 8:00 AM

SALT LAKE CITY – Super seniors Maile O’Keefe, Abby Paulson, and Jaedyn Rucker announced they were coming back for one more year with Utah Gymnastics last Senior Day, but little did they know the difficulties that would lie ahead.

The Red Rocks’ core group, fondly known to fans as JAM (Jaedyn, Abby, and Maile) have had to stretch their superpowers beyond the competition mats as chaos hit the team when allegations of emotional abuse from former head coach Tom Farden surfaced over the summer.

Farden and Utah recently went their separate ways last month.

That left Utah’s talented senior trio, along with the rest of the Red Rocks to pick up the broken pieces and move forward with new head coach Carly Dockendorf leading the way.

Resilient Red Rocks

Despite all the outside noise and whispers, all three gymnasts noted feeling extra close to their teammates in a way they hadn’t felt before.

Rucker says Utah has really bonded over an unimaginable set of circumstances that she believes will ultimately make them a better team in 2024.

“We’ve just bonded over something that was so unfortunate for us,” Rucker said. “It built our resilience up as a team and it feels- something about this year feels really different. It’s really special. I get goosebumps talking about it. I just feel like I truly love every single one of those girls down there right now and I think all 13 of them feel the same way about me. I’m just really excited to finally go on the floor and show everyone what we’ve been working on despite everything. We’re still a really strong team and still coming for that title.”

The Red Rocks aren’t the only team in Utah Athletics’ history that have had to overcome a lot in a season.

As recently as 2021 Utah football had to overcome the deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe in a nine month span to win their first Pac-12 Title and Rose Bowl berth. In 2018-19 Utah track and field had one of their best season finishes in the Pac-12 after teammate Lauren McCluskey was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend on campus that fall.

While thankfully Utah gymnastics is not dealing with their own shocking death like those other teams, there is no denying there has been a lot of emotional turmoil not fully knowing what the future would hold.

For Paulson, seeing other teams within Utah Athletics overcome much more tragic situations than what they are dealing with and still come together is inspiring for what they hopefully can accomplish.

“It’s kind of similar, we gladly don’t have a tragic event like Lauren McCluskey or 22,” Paulson said. “Nothing like that to bring us together, but it is still in a sense something that did impact all of us in our own individual ways and was a difficult situation no matter what happened. Losing your head coach a month before season is a difficult transition. We are moving together. We are bonding. We are hoping to use that to our benefit in growing as a team this year.”

As the team pushes forward, there is also an understanding in-house that the general public will think and perceive the situation however they want to whether it’s correct perception or not.

O’Keefe said it doesn’t really matter as long as she and her teammates stick together and lean on each other to get through what has been a very tough situation.

“I think there is no way to ever repair perception,” O’Keefe said. “People are going to perceive things how they want to perceive them whether they believe it’s true or false or whatever. I think all we are really doing is trying to stick together as a team and leaning into our coaches- trusting them and trusting each other.”

There Is Confidence In Carly Dockendorf’s Attention To Detail, Ability To Humanize The Athletes

Part of moving forward for Utah gymnastics is fully embracing new head coach Carly Dockendorf who has been on staff with the Red Rocks since 2018.

Dockendorf is likely mostly known to fans for turning Utah into a formidable beam team, but to the girls she coaches she is so much more.

JAM specifically noted Dockendorf’s attention to small details, thoughtfulness, and desire to know them as people, not just athletes as the strengths she brings to a team looking to move past the drama.

“I think she is leaning on a lot of us,” O’Keefe said. “Her fellow assistant coaches, seniors and super seniors. I think that just speaks to her as a person. She’s always willing to hear people’s outlooks and take them into consideration.”

Paulson said she’s personally experienced Dockendorf’s ability to uplift and build confidence not only on the competition floor, but in real life too.

“I love Carly,” Paulson said. “She’s been one of the biggest rocks in my life- especially since getting to college. I was one of those burnt-out elites who didn’t really like gymnastics when I got here, and she’s always been a positive light in my life. She taught me my worth in more than just gymnastics. She’s taught me I can love who I am outside of the sport and that my worth and everything I value isn’t dependent on my performance. Her as a head coach now is just super exciting. She can hopefully take that and grow us as a program, a team and individual athletes in that aspect too.”

Rucker has the least experience dealing with Dockendorf as a coach due to not competing beam, but does appreciate the small details she has picked up on over the years in order to create positive environment to be in.

One of those small details was understanding how devastating Aaron Lowe’s death was to Rucker, O’Keefe and several other gymnasts who were good friends with the football player. Dockendorf suggested changing the team’s theme from #L2L (little to legendary) to #L22L (Lowe wore the number 22) in honor of their fallen friend and that $22 be donated to the 22 Forever Scholarship fund for every stick the Red Rocks had that season.

It’s been small acts of love and compassion like that from Dockendorf that has instilled a lot of confidence in her ability to lead Utah gymnastics out of choppy waters.

“She just thinks about those little things that other people don’t really think about,” Rucker said. “She’s very creative and she takes everybody’s feelings into perspective. If she feels one way but knows something else is better, she’s not afraid to do that. Bringing that into coaching is very helpful. She’s able to switch it up and try new things and she doesn’t give up is another thing. She just keeps working until she finds that one thing and when it works, that is what we do.”

Carly Dockendorf Is Using Personal Experience To Shape Her Coaching Style With Utah Gymnastics

Dockendorf says she knows and understands what it’s like to be so tied to your identity as an athlete that you feel like a failure when things don’t work out. She’s using that experience to try and help her team believe in themselves and own their value both in and out of the competition floor.

“I think a lot of it comes from like feeling myself as an athlete and being worried so much about what people were going to thing about me if I didn’t hit my floor routine, or when I pole-vaulted if I didn’t make the bar- I felt so much disappointment always that I was letting people down,” Dockendorf said. “Then I realized as I’m a lot older now and reflect back, none of those people cared if I made the bar or if I hit my floor routine. They were going to love me along the way no matter what. I think having those experiences personally and being able to reflect back on them and thinking that if I just knew in the moment it was ok to make a mistake and they would still love me no matter what and I think I was awesome- I would have been way more successful.”

“It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on,” Dockendorf continued. “Down on our beam board right now there is a picture of them as a gymnast and it says, ‘what you do’ and then there is a picture of them as a child and it says, ‘who you are’. We really do talk a lot about it because the more they can recognize gymnastics is just something they do, it’s not a reflection of who they are as a person- when you focus so much on the results dictating your personal success, it can eat away at you if you make a mistake. For them, it takes a lot of work to feel that separation, but once they can they are able to go compete a lot more confidently and free.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Utah Gymnastics Looking To Move Forward From Chaotic Off-Season