“I think if anything, the (Utah) legacy drives us. We want to live up to that legacy.” – Maile O’Keefe
Settled, successful and striving for more – mainly, a National Championship for her team – Utah freshman Maile O’Keefe’s confidence is building and her performances are getting stronger week in and week out.
The 2016 and 2017 junior all-around national champion, O’Keefe is a fresh face on the NCAA scene this year and quickly fitting right in, taking on the transition with relative ease, though there have been a few challenges along the way. Challenges, but definitely no regrets foregoing a chance for Tokyo, for a chance to join the NCAA ranks with the Utes a year earlier than planned.
We spoke to O’Keefe just before the Red Rocks defeated UCLA on the Bruin’s home turf. Utah made history with that win, marking the program’s highest road score (198.075) and their best beam score with a huge 49.775. She says they’re definitely a “beam team” and that she’s enjoying the NCAA atmosphere so much, “It’s you, your teammates, your coaches and the sport that you love.”
Here’s more from our conversation:
Tell us about your season so far… How is your freshman year playing out for you?
Things are going really well so far. Team-wise, we’re exactly where we want to be and getting better and better every week. I’m feeling more comfortable and confident out there. The chemistry on the team is really meshing and we’re all really supportive of each other. It’s really going great!
Utah is really known for their fan base, filling the stands and record-setting attendance. Tell us about those first few moments in the Huntsman Center in front of your home crowd…
Going in to competition season, I knew there would be a fair amount of fans! I was a little nervous, a little bit excited, a little bit of everything… It was really exciting to be out there but also nerve-wracking because I knew there would be so many people and it’s a very different atmosphere than Elite. I’m really enjoying competing in front of our 15,000 plus fans and competing with my team.
Have your teammates helped you with that transition and adjustment as far as competing in front of such huge crowds week after week?
Yes. I think they recognized that this was very different for me and I think they’re all playing a special part helping me relax on competition days and keep my mind off of things until I need to straight-on focus on the competition and on my routines.
As you improve every meet and your scores increase, do you attribute that to starting to feel more comfortable on the NCAA scene and your confidence building?
Definitely. College atmosphere, team atmosphere is very different than Elite, it’s more self-centered and self-focused in Elite. So, my confidence is just building in a different atmosphere where I’m to the point I know I’m going to be comfortable with my routines.
You mentioned during a previous interview that beam is Utah’s event this year. What’s the workout mentality and why do you think your team is so strong on that event?
I think it has a lot to do with the team’s chemistry on the event. Abby (Paulson) and I, and the entire lineup, it’s building blocks. Our team’s accountability level in the gym is very high and I think that is why our accountability – our hit percentage in competition – is so high. Hitting three 9.95s in one rotation is really amazing and we’re not even finished, we’re going to be better and better. I hope we can hit higher than that, actually. Beam is our thing, definitely.
Outside of competition, how have you adjusted to being a college freshman?
I came in the summer which I think was really helpful. To see the campus, to get used to going to a few classes and getting to know my coaches… those changes… It’s going really well. It’s different, but I’m getting acclimated and more comfortable. Everything is getting better.
You were highly recruited. What influenced your decision to go to Utah?
Even with being highly recruited, for me, it wasn’t solely about the gymnastics. It was about what comes along with that – the academics, the coaches, the atmosphere. Utah was so consistent with me [when it came to recruiting]. I felt like Utah was already home before I chose it. And, it was close enough to home, but far enough away. Knowing the team before I got here was also really helpful. Everything that goes along with Utah – the legacy, the fanbase.
Does the legacy itself add extra pressure?
I don’t think the legacy adds any pressure. I think if anything, the legacy drives us. We want to live up to that legacy. We haven’t won a National Championship since 1995. My next four years, that’s our goal, that’s our drive, that’s our passion. The legacy is just an amazing part of Utah Gymnastics.
Were there athletes you looked up to who have competed for Utah? Or role models?
I really remember watching and looking up to Georgia Dabritz and MaKenna Merrell. Everybody that came along with Utah Gymnastics, who they were and what they accomplished. Megan Marsden… She was also a big reason, a drive for me to come here.
What’s some advice your teammates have given you about competing and striving for that National Championship these next four years?
Take it day by day. Focus on the moment and don’t get caught up in everything else around you. When you step into the gym, you don’t have to think about school or anything else going on outside of gymnastics. It’s you, your teammates, your coaches and the sport that you love. That’s what they’ve taught me to rely on the most.
You’re going all-around in almost every meet week after week, do you apply that advice while you’re competing as well? It’s very different than maybe only competing four times a year during Elite…
It’s different in the sense that the atmosphere is different, you’re watching scores popping up, it’s your team and there’s pressure. But, focusing in event by event is something I’ve always tried to do. So, in that sense, it’s not too different than Elite.
But, is it safe to say it might be more fun than Elite?
Oh, yes! It’s much more fun! During Elite, I never had a team to compete with. It was just my coaches and I. So, having my teammates and the girls around me is a lot more fun.
Was it a hard decision at all to leave Elite, to not go for Tokyo…
Yes. It wasn’t a decision that was made on the spot. It was in the works, but at some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I see myself making the Olympics?’ And if you don’t, you just have to make the next decision that’s best for you. For me, it was going back to Level 10 and enjoying my last year, well, I was going to do Level 10 for two years and then I got offered the opportunity to come to Utah early and that decision was really easy! All I had to do was take a couple more classes and I was ready to graduate.
It sounds like it’s been a pretty smooth transition for you, have there been any challenges gymnastics-wise or in making the transition every freshman goes through heading to college?
I think the hardest thing was getting used to being by myself kind of. I mean, I have my teammates of course, but obviously none of my family is here. In the first couple weeks, I had a concussion and then I had a minor foot injury so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to compete in all of the events. But, everything is going great now!
Obviously, the goal for your team is to win a National Championship… but are there other goals team-wise or individually you are striving for this year?
Individually, I’ve reached my goals. As a team, I don’t think we’ve reached what we can reach. We’re on our way up. We really want to make the “final four.”
You just sound so grounded and so happy. It sounds like Utah was absolutely the right decision for you…
Yes, definitely. College gymnastics… you need to figure out what’s best for you and make the right decision for you. I can communicate with my coaches so well. It’s so much fun. I’m so excited about these next four years.
Photos by University of Utah
Subscribe to Inside Gymnastics magazine in 2020! Click Here!