10 years and counting?

By and

Sometimes it seems there’s a drawback to everything-even winning 10 national gymnastics titles.

“I heard someone mention that Kyle Whittingham was hoping the 12-0 year would quickly go away,” said balance beam coach Megan Marsden. “Well, I’ve got news for him. Those expectations will be there for a long, long time. Every year at this time-or even sooner than now-people start asking ‘Will this be the team that wins this year?’ That pressure has never let up. Once we won one national championship, that expectation never went away.”

A lot has changed in the world of collegiate gymnastics since 1981, when the Utes won their first championship. Women’s sports weren’t even sponsored by the NCAA until 1982, judging was wildly different (and variable), and promotional tools such as music and flashy lights were frowned upon.

Head coach Greg Marsden-now in his 31st year-played a major role in the early development of the sport. Despite having no background in gymnastics (he was a competitive diver), Greg Marsden led the Utes to six-straight national titles and 10 in just 15 years, cementing his status as one of the best collegiate coaches of all time in any sport.

Which, in turn, is why the Marsdens face criticism after just 10 years without a title, even as the Utes regularly finish in the “Super Six” each year.

Two-time NCAA all-around champion and Ute associate head coach Megan Marsden believes the “drought” is the result of a considerable talent hike in the college ranks.

“I don’t completely envy my athletes,” she said. “I feel like what it takes to win an event title, to win the all-around, to win the team championship is much different than in my days.”

The improved competition, she says, has made it harder for athletes to get away with many mistakes.

“Both my years of winning the all-around had mistakes. One year I had a fall off the beam and the other year I had three major breaks, all on different events, and I won the all-around. Today, if you take one step on one event, you probably won’t win.”

The Marsdens believe that the Utes have a decent chance in 2006, but are careful to moderate their expectations.

“We’re a little bit of the underdog,” Greg Marsden said. “This is a very talented group, but is it the most talented group in the country? This year, no. That’s Georgia. But we’re close enough that it’s possible.”

Greg Marsden cites a shallow rotation as the primary weakness of the Ute team, a problem he believes next year’s promising recruiting class will resolve.

“We may be in a better position a year from now in terms of depth on every event to be right there in the mix, but I’m pretty realistic about where we are and what our chances are,” he said.

UCLA, Alabama, Florida, Stanford and Georgia could all take home the hardware with a big performance in Corvalis, Ore., at the NCAA Championships.

“Greg talks about how one team needs to get on a roll and have the stars and moon aligned at the same time,” Megan Marsden said. “Besides staying on the equipment, it’s which team can have all their athletes at peak performance on the same night. That’s what it takes. It’s not so much ‘Have you done your homework?’ or ‘Are you prepared?’ It’s ‘Did your team get lucky enough to have everybody hit on every event?'”

The Utes are used to the pressure that comes with the territory of being a national contender.

“We’ve always been up high in the rankings,” senior Gritt Hofmann said. “Every year, we’ve had a chance to win a championship. It’s mainly sticking landings. We’re peaking right now, and we just need to maintain focus and work on the little things.”

Megan Marsden wants Hofmann and other seniors to experience the same thrills that she had before they leave the U.

“I would like my athletes to get the chance to win,” she said. “Even though we do our best to make them feel like all our hard work paid off because we were there, in the mix-I know, because I’ve won, that it’s not the same. You don’t get a ring, you don’t get to be called national champions, and you don’t get to say ‘We’re No. 1.’ I want them to experience what it’s like to be No. 1. They deserve that.”

Her husband stresses the importance of staying healthy and well-rested in the weeks building up to the championships.

“For the next three weeks, they have to stay very directed and very intelligent,” Greg Marsden said. “There’s a lot going on, with school and stuff, and it’s tough to balance.”