Maile O’Keefe: “We can’t focus on the outcome, we have to focus on the process.”

By Ashlee Buhler 

It was the final rotation of the regional finals in Seattle with Utah trailing Alabama by a half tenth, and only leading Michigan State by a little over two tenths. It was coming down to the wire with two tickets to the NCAA Championships on the line. For Utah, only the beam stood in their way. It’s an event they truly shine on; they’re ranked first in the nation for a reason, but on this day the pressure was on like never before. 

A fall in the middle of the lineup put the Utes in a position where they had to hit in order to qualify to the NCAA Championships. As it stands, they are the only team in history to never miss a national championship, so one more slip up could have been a devastating blow.

When you need a big number, what better group to call on than Cristal Isa, Kara Eaker and Maile O’Keefe. Isa got the Utes back on track with a near perfect routine, good for a 9.97, followed by the freshman Kara Eaker, who came in clutch with a stunning routine; earning the first perfect 10 of her career. It all came down to Maile O’Keefe. 

After a few deep breaths, O’Keefe was up on the beam doing what she does best. She was patient with her skills but moved with confidence, letting one skill seamlessly flow into the next. She dismounted with a side aerial layout full, sticking the landing cold. She let it simmer for a moment before saluting the judges and letting out a victorious scream. It was a perfect 10—the Utes were headed to the NCAA Championships for the 46th straight season! 

With a ticket punched for Fort Worth, the No. 4 ranked Utes will shift their focus to the final leg of the season. They will be fighting to bring home an NCAA title for the first times since 1995. It won’t be an easy feat, but if any team has drive and determination to make it happen, it’s this one! The Utes are loaded with talent and backed by experienced veterans such as O’Keefe. Could this be the year the title comes back to Salt Lake City? We’ll soon find out! 

Inside Gymnastics sat down with Maile O’Keefe to discuss regionals, Utah’s mindset for NCAA’s, and her post stick celebrations!


 

What’s it like when you reach this point in the season? Physically and mentally do you start to get tired or do you feel more motivated knowing this is the moment you’ve been working for? 

I think there’s a little bit of physical and mental tiredness. Personally I think it’s more mentally tiring because we do gymnastics all year round, so it’s not like this is more work. What we’ve talked about here at Utah is the last percent being the strongest percent. It’s kind of like an iphone battery; you’re always like, ‘Ugh there’s 1 percent’ but then it lasts 30 minutes! I think we’re all really motivated and on meet days, the physical and mental tiredness kind of evaporates and we just do our gymnastics. 

At this point in the season, is the team looking to improve or just maintain what you’ve been doing? 

I think we’re really focused on maintaining. You know, we haven’t quite hit a solid meet on all four events like we know we can. We have meets where we do a good vault and bar rotation or a good beam and floor, so I think one of our main focuses is taking it event by event so we can hit a good four for four meet because that’s what it’s going to take. 

You are really good at hitting under pressure, especially on beam. Do you feel any nerves when you’re out there? 

It’s weird because I definitely feel nervous before I go, but once I salute I’m hyperfoused on my goal and it’s like I’m so focused on that—I can’t even focus on being nervous! So I’m definitely nervous before but then during [my routine] it’s just like everyday in the gym. I definitely rely on breathing a lot and taking a lot of deep breaths. During my routine I try to focus on my breathing but then I also use keywords for my skills. 

I have to ask about your post beam dismount celebrations… You’re very calm and almost stoic while holding the stick, and then burst into a celebration! Are you just taking it all in? 

Yeah, whenever I stick a bar dismount too I feel like I’m the same way—I kind of hold it and show it! I think one of my main reasons is when you think about a college stick… it’s barely a stick in my opinion. So when I stick something I want to give the judges no reason to take any deductions on it. So I think that’s my main reason but I think the elite in me kind of pops out a little bit and I’m almost stone cold but then the college side comes out as soon as I’m finished!

When you look back at this season so far, what has been one of your favorite moments or memories? 

I would say my favorite moment was probably this past weekend at regionals on day two in our last event after having a mistake in the lineup. Our last three beam workers came out and were nearly perfect or perfect. Cristal got the momentum going again with a 9.975 and I didn’t watch Kara’s routine because I was doing my mental prep, but she did a flawless routine and got a 10! And then I kind of just went up there and did my thing but that was one of the most rewarding moments of this season. 

Were you aware Kara got a 10 before you saluted? 

I was not aware! Everybody had said it was really good and she looked really happy when she was walking back so I just knew I needed to focus in and do my thing too.

Utah is one of the most successful programs in history with nine NCAA titles and 46 consecutive championship appearances! What would it mean for this team to bring the title back to Salt Lake City after 27 years?

I think it would be really fun to win a national championship, not only doing the gymnastics but just the feeling that we could get afterwards—that high! But I also realize there are very capable teams at NCAAs this year. I feel like we can’t focus on the outcome, we have to focus on the process which can definitely help us reach that goal! I think we’re very capable of that. 

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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