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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the Olympians and veteran gymnasts at the collegiate level who have competed for a national championship, freshman Makenna Smith made her mark.
The 5-foot-3 gymnast from Albuquerque, New Mexico, dazzled in her collegiate debut for the Red Rocks as the program hosted then-No. 6 LSU in its season-opening meet on Friday at the Huntsman Center. Though younger than almost anyone on the floor, Smith was an equal with her peers that night.
Smith recorded a team-high 9.90 score on vault in the fourth position with her roundoff entry with a half twist onto the table and near stuck landing, and added a 9.850 on bars and a 9.875 on floor on a night where scores are traditionally lower than normal. It was as good of a night as the freshman gymnast could have asked for with a crowd of nearly 15,000 people cheering her on for the first time.
"It was so awesome," Smith said. "It's still just surreal to me being able to compete in front of that crowd — was just incredible. I love competing in front of the crowd. My favorite thing about competition is you get to perform, and having that crowd and the fans was just so cool. It was a dream come true, and I can't wait to do it for the next four years."
Utah head coach Tom Farden said he was impressed by Smith's debut, too. Often, he said, a freshman will take his advice but it doesn't always translate to practice or the meets. With Smith, it was instantly different, and it's given the coaching staff a lot of confidence in what she can do for the team.
"By golly, she went and did it," Farden said. "So as a freshman sometimes you can say that to them, but they're kind of like in one ear and out the other, because they're freshmen; not this one, just boom."
Though rated as the eighth overall recruit out of the 2022 recruiting class, Smith didn't have the pedigree of many of the other gymnasts around her when she joined Utah. She never made the senior national team for USA Gymnastics or was in contention for a chance at the Olympics, but her talent was easy to see from Farden.
"You can see that her gymnastics matches our ability, our gymnastics, if not excels," Farden said, with a sense of excitement about Smith's future. "I know she was a little under the radar and wasn't an Olympian — I know all that stuff; I'm fully aware of that stuff — but what people didn't see was her talent."
"I don't think it really did anything to me, because I still knew my performance, like, the scores that I got, or the feedback — like judges going up to my coach after and saying how beautiful a routine looked, or just like how good my technique was or something like that — to me, that was better than being considered, like, oh, well, you were in the top five," Smith said. "Hearing back from the judges and getting compliments like that, that felt like it was more to me."
Farden said Smith "was better than on her film she shared" when he went to watch her in person during her recruitment. And it's only gotten better from there. He believes Smith could soon be ready to compete in all-around, which is an accomplishment given the depth and talent Utah has on its roster this season.
Utah finished last season No. 3 and featured the best beam team in the country, but Farden believes "she's got a good shot at breaking into the top six on balance beam, as well." Smith is well on her way to becoming a household name for the Red Rocks, especially if she continues the trajectory she's on in such a limited timeframe.
"My goal long term throughout the four years, I want to compete all around; that's my biggest goal," Smith said. "But as of right now, especially my freshman year, I just kind of want to get my feet wet, figure out how to compete, what it is like competing in college gymnastics, and just help out wherever I can and wherever Tom and the coaches think that I'll be able to make the most impact."
Smith has made that impact early.
Beyond what Smith does on the floor during competition, her smile and "inner child" joyfulness radiates and fills up whatever room she's in. You'd be hard pressed to catch her without a smile, and that's just part of the joy she brings to life.
"I love flipping around and I love, I don't know, I love the feeling of like flying through the air on bars or like when I do a really, really good turn — just the feeling that it gives me inside," Smith said. "I think that really drives me, and always trying to be the best and be your own competitor. Or competing, you want to be better than your last turn. I think that's really what drives me.
"I still have a very childlike sense of I will still watch Disney shows or Disney movies. I still really like letting my inner child out, because I think it makes life a lot more fun."
It's why Smith said she doesn't plan to let any mistakes or down moments as a gymnast get the best of her. And it's why she's just soaking up the freshman experience as she hopes to have a significant role with the team in its pursuit for a national championship.
Even if her role changes over the course of the season, it's all part of the experience she's prepared to have at Utah.
"My club coach back home," Smith said, "he always told me to remember: Your good turns, most of the time, are gonna outweigh your bad turns; and your good days are gonna outweigh your bad days, and they come every once in a while and you can't be perfect all the time. That's how you learn.
"So for me, if I have a bad day, it's just come back the next day like it's a brand new day, don't hold on to what it was the day before. If there's possibly corrections that I could make to make something better, maybe think of those. But I try not to get too hard, like too down on myself or be too hard on myself, because it ends up just hurting me more in the long run than letting it go."