The Duke of Huntsman

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

It was not a pretty sight at the Duke household on Nov. 27. Then again, things rarely are when BYU and Utah fans mingle in the same household the day of the biggest football game in the state of Utah.

During Ute gymnast Jessica Duke’s freshman and sophomore years at the U, she had the pleasure of watching Utah beat her parents’ alma mater on the football field, but during the most recent Battle for the Boot, Jessica was the Duke left with a bad taste in her mouth.

“I stormed out of my house while everyone was cheering,” Duke said with a chuckle. “I thought we were going to win; I was so happy.”

Other than the annual basketball or football games between the Utes and Cougars, the Dukes have no problem getting along. Although Jessica admits her dad was one of the guys who would try to paint the Block U blue when he was in college, Jeff Duke musters up the courage to slip on a dreaded “Utah” hat in support of his daughter’s gymnastics team. Still, he continues to consider Utah’s campus “enemy territory.”

“He has a (U gymnastics) hat that he always wears,” Duke said. “He wears it everywhere, not just to the meets?it’s kind of funny. It’s kind of cool to see that.”

Although Jessica Duke went on an unofficial visit to BYU, her heart was always set on becoming a Red Rock. She grew up in the Salt Lake area, she’s been attending U gymnastics meets since she was little, she’s had club teammates come to the U and Mary Wright–who was Duke’s club gymnastics coach–has also been a volunteer coach at Utah for the past four years.

Duke is currently the only Ute gymnast who grew up in Utah. The fact that she is the lone local gymnast, combined with her outgoing and friendly personality, makes her a natural concierge of the Salt Lake area for incoming teammates.

Because she is a local athlete, assistant coach Megan Marsden also feels that Duke is an inspiration for the local girls who watch her at every home meet.

“It helps with the locals and the younger girls looking up to those people (thinking), ‘If she can do it, maybe I can,'” Marsden said. “When there is someone from Sandy, Utah, I think that helps.”

Marsden has also been instrumental in helping Duke accept the valuable role she plays for the Red Rocks.

Performing first on any event is not a place most gymnasts are comfortable in. Leadoff gymnasts never get the highest scores, and it is easily one of the most consistent pressure situations a gymnast can be in.

Not only does the leadoff gymnast set the tone for the rest of the team, but that person must be an extremely consistent performer because if the first gymnast falters or falls off an apparatus, the pressure on the rest of the team grows exponentially.

Duke fills the roll of leadoff gymnast for the Red Rocks perfectly.

Since her freshman year, she has hit 66 out of 69 routines, which makes her one of the most consistent gymnasts to ever wear a Utah uniform. She is also the first to admit that her routines will never get her the high scores that some of her teammates get, but she is glad to be helping the team any way she can.

“I love this position,” Duke said. “I’m probably not going to score high, but I absolutely love this spot because I know I’m going to hit, I know I can set the team up right so I love it.”

This isn’t how Duke has always felt.

During her freshman year, she had a hard time dealing with her less glamorous role. It was Marsden who helped Duke see her importance on the team.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating because I feel like I’ve worked so hard to barely squeeze in the lineup,” Duke said.

Duke now relishes her role as leadoff gymnast, and she thinks her teammates and coaches are glad she is in that position, too.

“As coaches, we feel like the starting role can be as critical as the last couple of spots,” Marsden said. “I think (Duke) is a perfect type of person for the leadoff. You want that type of person that gets out there, that’s excited and shows team spirit.”

Lennie Mahler

Jessica Duke hugs a teammate during the Utes’ Jan.19 victory over Washington in the Huntsman Center.

Lennie Mahler

Jessica Duke performs a bar routine in the Utes’ Jan.19 victory over Washington in the Huntsman Center.