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'Little bit of chaos:' Red Rocks live or die on beam, and nationals will be no different

Utahโ€™s Alexia Burch is pictured during an exhibition on the beam as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Minnesota in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Utahโ€™s Alexia Burch is pictured during an exhibition on the beam as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Minnesota in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY โ€” Cristal Isa took a few deep breaths before mounting the four-inch beam at the Seattle regional final earlier this month.

Just moments before, super senior Alexia Burch had a rare fall off that same beam and Utah was at risk of missing out on its 46th straight nationals appearance. But in that moment, living for another day was the furthest thing on Isa's mind โ€” it had to be.

It was her time to reset the tone for the No. 1 beam team in the country. But being the best in the country meant little if the Red Rocks suffered another mistake; it mattered little if she didn't hit her routine.

And like the veteran gymnast she is, Isa delivered a near flawless routine that got her a 9.975 score for the effort โ€” momentum restored. What followed was back-to-back 10.0 scores from freshman Kara Eaker and junior Maile O'Keefe to leave no doubt.

Another nationals appearance was secured โ€” the only NCAA program to reach nationals every year of its existence. It was a seminal moment to the season as the Red Rocks showed what the team was capable of accomplishing ahead of a stacked nationals competition.

But what the beam team did that night shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have watched the team all season. The beam team's performance throughout the season has had a direct link to the Red Rocks' ability to reach new levels as a program โ€” good and bad.

In one corner, the Red Rocks suffered their first-ever loss to Arizona State because of a shaky night on beam; in the other corner, the Red Rocks recorded the highest beam score in the country multiple times and helped lift the program to a second-best all-time score (198.575) on senior night against Minnesota.

In many ways, the Red Rocks live and die on beam; and it's exactly the way they want it.

"Our team does better under a little bit of chaos in the moment โ€” not necessarily like pressure, but we call it chaos," Burch said ahead of Thursday's meet (11 a.m. MDT, ESPN2).

Whether it's called chaos, adversity, or some other name, the Red Rocks want the pressure on beam; it's an opportunity to force themselves to focus on what they do best. Burch said that pressure to deliver forces the gymnasts to forget their nerves and to just focus on their gymnastics; it "distracts" them enough to have a clear mind.

"Because everyone's so scheduled as an athlete, I think when something doesn't go as planned, it kind of distracts you in a way that you don't have to think about your gymnastics because you're thinking about random things going on," Burch said. "I think adversity is a good way to put it."

Utahโ€™s Grace McCallum competes on the beam as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Oregon State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Utah won.
Utahโ€™s Grace McCallum competes on the beam as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Oregon State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Utah won. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Eaker, who has only competed in a handful of meets due to an ankle injury in the first meet of the season, said she loves to have beam as the event that decides the Red Rocks' fate in a meet.

"I definitely like having beam be the decider, because we're so strong on beam," Eaker said. "And at this point in the season, we're so consistent that whoever goes up there, I know that we will hit six for six. So it's not really a bad thing that we get to end on beam; if anything, I think it's an advantage."

It's an advantage so long as the Red Rocks can perform up to their expectations and no mistakes are made in an event where "chaos" could take place at any moment. It's why floor specialist Sydney Soloski, who is not part of the beam team, said she has a "mixed relationship" with the event.

"The more invested you are, the more nervous you become, especially in an event when you don't have any control of it," Soloski said. "Like on floor, I don't really stress about anyone that goes before me, but then again, I get to go at the end and either clean up a mess or build off of what they've done. But an event where you just have to sit there and sometimes cross your fingers and hope for the best โ€” and it's not that they're not capable, but it's gymnastics and there's a reason that teams don't make it out."

Even the best teams can stumble when a four-inch beam is the decider in success or failure as a team. While no one would fault a mistake in an event with such narrow margins, it's still like living life on the edge.

Relying on beam for the Red Rocks is a high risk, high reward stake, but it's one the team has full confidence in going into nationals โ€” even if it means someone like Soloski stays back a distance so as not to share her nervous energy, like most fans watching at home.

"I know they're very good. I know we're the No. 1 beam team for a reason, and in practice it's 10.0 routine after 10.0 routine โ€” like I see that โ€” but there's just something about beam on a podium at a big event that just kind of makes your stomach turn a little bit, and I can't say that I'm not โ€” I do feel that a little bit," Soloski said. "I do stand further back from the beam just because I feel like I don't want to give my maybe nervous energy towards them.

"And it's not that I don't have faith in them, it's that 'Oh, you're on a four-inch beam and you're flipping on it.' I think anyone watching that could be a little frightened. It's a fun event to watch, but it also is like 'Oh.' It's one of those, so it's not my favorite."

Soloski just speaks the truth.

The Red Rocks will compete in the first session of nationals Thursday against Oklahoma, Alabama and Minnesota, with a chance to compete on Saturday. The top two teams from each session will advance to Saturday, where a national champion will be named.

And the last rotation of the meet for the Red Rocks? Beam.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics โ€” primarily football, menโ€™s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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