Junior MaKenna Merrell-Giles changed one thing this season that has made all the difference in her success — she decided to have fun again.
“My freshman and sophomore year, the season was always so stressful for me,” Merrell-Giles said. “Leading up as the weeks got closer and closer, I’d have so much anxiety and I hated it. Season’s supposed to be the reward after all the hard work, and every meet you go to should be showing what you’ve been working on, but it was almost like I dreaded competing because I put so much pressure on myself.”
All the preparation she put in has come to fruition this year. Merrell-Giles, who got married over the summer to her husband Matthew, is having a career season. She has already won the all-around title three times.
The Utah native grew up cheering for the Red Rocks’ in-state rival, BYU. She went to gymnastics meets in Provo, her dad currently works for BYU, her brother attends the university and her older sister MiKell was a gymnast for the Cougars.
“I knew I wanted to go to a program that would fit me and it happened to be in Utah, so that worked out great,” Merrell-Giles said. “When I was little, I really wanted to go to BYU, that was my dream. Watching my sister go there, I always wanted to do that until I started getting recruited by the U, then all my plans changed. I fell in love with this school.”
Merrell-Giles has focused on becoming a better teammate and competing like the gymnast that she was recruited to be. She remembers her sister MiKell reminding her to enjoy gymnastics. Her older sister was able to give her pointers that helped her relax and enjoy being a student-athlete because it would be over before she knew it.
Watching Merrell-Giles flourish this season reminds co-head coach Megan Marsden why she coaches.
“It’s why I do this,” Marsden said. “This is what I look forward to seeing, and I know that it takes some time and this is what warms my heart the most. To watch an athlete really develop into the best gymnast they can be out on the competitive floor and to address some of their weaknesses in order to be able to accomplish that. I like that more than anything, to see that happen for them.”
Marsden watched the confidence that MyKayla Skinner has carry over to Merrell-Giles, and it has helped her become who she is this season.
“MyKayla came to us last year and made it clear from the beginning that she would be a star for us,” Marsden said. “But it always helps if she has a really strong entourage around her that are doing things almost as good as she is, and MaKenna is proving that she has developed so much that she’s right there with her. And that only makes our team stronger, and that’s what it takes to be in the mix at the end of the year.”
The development of Merrell-Giles has helped Utah become the only team with two athletes ranked in the all-around in the country. Skinner is in 4th place and Merrell-Giles is in 5th.