Utah Head Coach Tom Farden On The Pandemic And The College Gymnastics Season

If you’re enjoying the newsletter won’t you please subscribe?

Get 15% off for 1 year

When the 2020 season abruptly ended due to the pandemic, the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics team had been undefeated and looked like they were on track to their best finish since the team placed a close second behind Florida in 2015 during Greg Marsden’s final season as coach. (Here’s a Q&A I did with Marsden in 2019. Since his retirement, Marsden has become something of a poster.)

Of course, we’ll never know how the rest of the 2020 season might’ve played out but speculating is a good way to while the hours away during this pandemic.

Uncertainty, too, pervades the 2021 season, which started two weeks ago and is heading into its third weekend. Before it even got underway, fans wondered if it would or even should go off as planned. And then there was a lot of wondering about what it would look like, whether it would feel different than years past, and how well the gymnastics programs would adhere to masking guidelines and social distancing protocols. LSU Gymnastics came in for a lot of criticism online due to what appeared to be lax masking and social distancing practices during Gym 101, their pre-season exhibition, though they were not alone in their COVID-19 mitigation lapses.

In 2020-2021, mask wearing has become another criterion by which teams are evaluated, more important even than hitting vertical on handstands and sticking dismounts. To learn more about how NCAA gymnastics teams are working through this pandemic season, I reached out to Tom Farden, the head coach of Utah’s gymnastics team, and asked if he’d be willing to answer some questions about the team is managing workouts, athlete health, and the million other little issues that have arisen while trying to prepare and compete during this very fraught, dangerous time. He graciously agreed to do it and then I sent him far too many questions.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dvora Meyers: Can you talk about learning that season was ending up abruptly last year and breaking the news to the team, which had been doing so well. How did you react? How did the gymnasts take the news?

Tom Farden: We were devastated when we were told that our season would not continue. Personally, I was heartbroken for Missy Reinstadtler, Kim Tessen, and Hunter Dula, as I knew their careers did not have a chance at the ending that each of them worked so diligently for.

DM: Since March, many of us have been living under varying degrees of restrictions, depending on the state. When your gymnasts returned home after the season suddenly ended, did any of them face restrictions that would’ve kept them out of the gym and from staying conditioned? What did you and the coaching staff have to do to help mitigate that?

TF: All of them in some respect went through restrictions. One of the items that our compliance department would allow was for team Zoom meetings, and for us to send suggested workouts. With that said, we had a summer book club, frequent team and individual meetings, and I made it a point to call them to check in. Lastly, the coaches made conditioning videos with us doing the actual exercises. Inside info on Utah gymnastics—Carly Dockendorf and Courtney McCool are far superior than Garrett and myself in any physical endeavor!

[Ed. note: Both Dockendorf and McCool are former NCAA gymnasts. McCool was also a member of the silver medal winning 2004 U.S. Olympic team.]

DM: When did you guys find out from the NCAA and the athletic administration that you would be going ahead with the 2021 season?

TF: With the pandemic, we learned that everything can change within a matter of minutes. Our team mentality has been to take advantage of every moment we are given. We were not sure what a 2021 season would look like and there was just so much uncertainty around the season. There was no certain moment we knew there would be a season, and things began to take form when return-to-play plans began in the fall. We just always kept the path, stay[ed] focused on what we could control, and were hopeful to have any opportunity of having a 2021 season.

DM: There are people who feel that the 2021 college gymnastics season should’ve been canceled outright, that the risk posed by COVID-19 is just too great. What would you say to people who think this season shouldn't be going forward at all?

TF: The NCAA, our athletic conference office, and athletic department have given each athlete the opportunity to opt out of this season without loss of scholarship or a year of eligibility. With that in effect, we feel that our athletes and their families have made careful and calculated decisions to move forward with their participation. If an athlete or their family became uncomfortable and wanted to pause, we would support their decision 100%.

DM: What sort of groundwork and planning preceded the gymnasts’ return to campus and when did they start coming back to Salt Lake City?

TF: With the support of physicians and our athletic training staff, our administration came up with a complete return-to-play book for gymnastics, and, specifically, our building. We had cleaning logs, direction arrows, and of course, the special lighting in the training room, locker room, bathrooms, and other high traffic areas.

DM: When, in the late summer, several universities opened up again for in-person learning and let students move back onto campus, there were outbreaks at these schools. Was there an outbreak at the University of Utah like there was in many other places?  

TF: Knock on wood, to this date we have not had a single case of COVID in our program (gymnasts, coaches, and support staff).

DM: Are the gymnasts doing in-person learning, remote learning, or some combination thereof?

TF: Our fall semester had 22% of the classes in person and the remainder online.

DM: How often are the gymnasts being tested and via what means—PCR or rapid test or both?

TF:  PCR each week 48 hours prior to any competition.

DM: How has training in the gym looked different than it did before the emergence of COVID-19? Do they all still train together at the same time or do they work in smaller groups to minimize the fallout if one gymnast tests positive? 

TF: We have to be smart with workout times, grouping the athletes and only allowing masks to be removed when the athletes are flipping. That means that when we are conditioning or doing a cardio workout, our athletes are wearing masks. We have had to quarantine gymnasts with regards to contact tracing or prior to their PCR tests. The training has to look different as we are in uncharted times and we feel it’s best to err on the side of caution. This has been an adjustment to our training plans as well.

DM: One of the concerns that many have in regards to the coronavirus and athletes is the risk of developing myocarditis after a bout of the coronavirus. We saw Florida basketball player Keyontae Johnson collapse on the court late last year. There is already one Oklahoma gymnast who has been diagnosed with myocarditis and is sitting the season out. What actions are you taking to screen for possible cases of myocarditis on the team? And if a case is diagnosed, what are the next steps? 

TF: From Melissa Lindstrom, our athletic trainer: 

“In order to maintain the health and safety of our student athletes, we rely on information from leading medical experts at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American College of Cardiology. After receiving a positive test, the steps taken to screen for myocarditis are dependent on the presence and severity of symptoms related to COVID-19. If a case is diagnosed through screening, the athlete would be referred to a specialist in the field and all recommendations presented would be followed by the university medical staff.”

DM: It’s not just the athletes who are at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. The coaching staff is also at risk. What sort of precautions are you and the rest of staff taking in your personal lives to reduce your risks of contracting COVID-19?

TF: Our staff members are extremely dedicated professionals. The sacrifices that they have made have been inspired by our athletes’ focus and discipline. Our general philosophy is to limit the exposure as much as we can in our everyday lives. This has meant no meals inside restaurants for us, and for me personally, not allowing my teenage son to hang out with his friends. It is challenging, but I also feel it’s in the best interest for the time being. 

DM: You have the first meet in a truly unique season under your belt. How do you think it went, from both the gymnastics perspective and the COVID prevention perspective?

TF: Yes, we were pleased with the preventative measures we took. We had traffic patterns, testing by all people on the floor 48 hours prior to competition, cleaning, and of course, we felt that this meet was a good jumping-off point with taking in all considerations of our pre-season.

DM: What do you think of Maile O’Keefe becoming a mask hero for pulling her mask out of her leotard right after finishing her competition vault?

TF: Maile is someone who I admire for her ability to be a positive example. I have really enjoyed coaching her and her mask out of her leotard is something clever she would come up with.

[Ed. note: Maile’s technique is similar to what I used in my 20s when I went out dancing and I didn’t want to bring a bag for my keys, credit card, and ID.]

DM: Your first competition entailed travel. Can you talk about the coronavirus prevention protocols that are in place for athletes when they travel vs. when they’re going to compete at home?

TF: We only had to drive seven miles for our opener, but we did use a seating chart on the bus and mandated no eating or drinking on the bus.

[Ed. note: I sent these questions to Farden after the first week of the season so his answer doesn’t take into account their travel to Norman, Oklahoma the following week.]

DM: One of the things that Utah Gymnastics is known for, and something that I’ve written about quite a lot, is the spectacle and that huge home crowd. I remember you telling me that competing in front of a crowd like the Utes do regularly at Huntsman is one of the big lures for gymnasts to commit to Utah. There will be no crowd this season due to safety concerns. While this is entirely necessary, it’s also quite sad. How do you and the gymnasts feel about the loss of the legendary Huntsman crowd? And how are you guys working to bring energy to a room that usually fizzes with it?

TF: While we haven’t experienced this yet, we are going to embrace this new challenge and find our inner energy with our program and make a perfect 10.0 of our situation.

DM: When I did a Q&A with Kathy Johnson Clarke, she said, “I hope they have an unmitigated conviction to safety, first and foremost, and the courage to call off season if that becomes necessary.” What, in your opinion, would it take or should it take for this season to be called off?

TF: One unique thing about gymnastics is that is a non-contact sport and considered by the NCAA a low-risk activity. With that being said, the virus is lurking around each corner and while no program is perfect, we are attempting to be mindful of each decision regarding our team participating in this year’s season. I am not a health expert, but will continue to rely on the guidance from our administration and local health experts. If they deem it necessary to pause or withdraw from this year’s season, we will fully support their decision and trust those who are navigating the pandemic daily for our safety.

DM: Have you prepared the gymnasts for the possibility that, despite everyone’s best efforts, the season might end abruptly like it did last year?

TF: It has been mentioned and our athletes as a team choose to be all in and see where their efforts can take them. We know every meet is not guaranteed this year, so it is important to our team to leave it all out on the floor every opportunity we have to compete because you don’t know what the next week may have in store.

DM: What do you hope the gymnasts get out of this pandemic season? 

TF: To understand how much each of us really love the sport and figure out how each athlete/coach can give back to keep it what it is, an American treasure.

If you watched the inauguration on Wednesday or were anywhere near a computer that was hooked up to the internet, you saw THE photo of Bernie Sanders in his mittens and surgical mask sitting in a folding chair, arms crossed, in all of his Jewish old man glory.

This photo quickly launched a thousand themes but the best of the bunch came from Jewish Twitter; who better to capture the essence of what it means to be an old Jewish man sitting outside in the cold than people who will either one day grow up to be old Jewish men or those of us who have spent a lifetime around them?

Here are a few of my favorites.

But since this is also a gymnastics newsletter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this brilliant gymnastics themed Bernie meme from Slothanova.

This image is from the 2012 Olympic vault podium. In that event, Romanian Sandra Izbasa took gold after the heavy favorite to win, McKayla Maroney, fell on one of her vaults and won silver. The bronze medalist was Maria Paseka from Russia.

It was while standing on the vault podium that Maroney made her now famous “not impressed” face that quickly became a meme. Bernie, too, seems unimpressed.

Here’s another great gymnastics/Bernie mashup, also involving Maroney. This image is from 2012 Olympic team finals when Maroney stuck what was perhaps the best Amanar vault ever performed. As you can see in the still, there’s judge Cheryl Hamilton, staring open mouthed in shock as Maroney lands. And right next to her on the judging panel is Bernie, who must’ve been on the execution panel that inexplicably found deductions in what appeared to be a perfect vault. I can practically hear him grumbling something about redistributing the tenths from top 1 percent of vaulters to the 99 percent of vaulters or something like that.