Annabeth Eberle came into the Utah gymnastics program in 2002 with great talent, even more potential and surprising leadership for a freshman.
Gritt Hofmann entered the Ute team at mid-year, tired from competing for Germany in the world championships just months earlier, knowing no one, not knowing the language well, painfully quiet and hoping only to have fun after being influenced by a video of the Utes competing happily.
They've had different bumps, bruises and highlights along the way, but the two Ute seniors are united in thoughts this week that their college careers couldn't have turned out much better, that they have reached and exceeded their own goals.
Eberle, the two-year team captain a real rarity and Hofmann, who gets thunderous standing ovations as the last Ute performer in home meets, the prestigious sixth competitor in the final event, floor exercise, will perform in their last regular-season meet at the Huntsman Center Friday night when Arizona State visits the second-ranked Utes at 7.
Prior to their Senior Night introductions, more than 50 Ute gymnastics alumnae will be honored beginning at 6:45 as the team celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Then Eberle and her parents, from Reno, Nev., and Hofmann and her parents, from Berlin, Germany, will be center stage with the Ute coaches for a moment of individual recognition.
Hofmann can't even remember the last time her parents were able to watch her compete in person. Even as a member of the German national team, meets were rarely close to home, and they worked, so this night will be extra special for her. "I'm excited. They know I had a great time here, and I'm proud to show off what a great team we have here," Hofmann said.
Eberle isn't sure how she'll react to the emotional scene. "I don't want to break down, but I might," she said. "I can't talk about it without breaking down.
"It seems like (my career) just started, but I've been through so much. I don't have any regrets."
She has battled ankle problems the past two seasons but still managed to find the consistency that was the only thing she needed in her freshman year. So far, she has seven (including ties) of the all-time top 10 Ute all-around scores, five perfect 10.0s and 57 event victories.
Last season, Eberle didn't miss a routine until falling on bars at the regional, and she came back with the best vault of the field on the first day of the NCAA Championships, then was vault runner-up in the individual event finals. She's had only two misses this season, competing in every event of every meet despite the sore surgically repaired ankle.
Hofmann did one vault as a freshman and missed the rest of the season with a back injury but carried a 4.0 grade average even with her language unfamiliarity. As a sophomore, she was voted the team's most improved athlete and was a regular on beam and floor. As a junior, she missed six meets with back and hip injuries but came back to win the regional floor championship with that energetic, dance-inspired routine that made her a crowd favorite wherever she performed it.
With a much-upgraded routine to the same style of music this year, Hofmann achieved the coveted anchor spot in Utah's floor lineup, ending most home meets standing in the spotlight smiling grandly, having all the fun she dreamed of 3 1/2 years ago.
"I just wanted to experience that," Hofmann said of the joy she saw the Utes have when she watched that video years ago. Now, she is a focal point of that experience. "I really appreciate being last up on floor. The crowd makes it easy for me," she said.
Hofmann was a starter on vault and beam, doing upgrades she never expected to be able to use, until a bad wrist and broken finger slowed her last month. Her only regret is that shoulder surgery kept her from getting to go all-around. "Yeah, I'm pretty happy," she says.
Coach Greg Marsden said Hofmann's electric floor routine is somewhat opposite of her quiet personality, but he has learned over the past several years that Hofmann truly enjoys the sport, and when she's on the floor, "She lights up. She really enjoys performing."
Hofmann is engaged to a Utah student from Minneapolis the tentative wedding date is June 20, 2006, in Berlin and plans to remain in America to work as an interior designer, a unique major that she was able to build at the U.
Eberle remembers 1999 and 2000 as her career highlights because she was a youngster training toward making the Olympic team, attending camps at Bela Karolyi's Texas ranch. She wanted to give up the sport after not making the team, but when she committed to Utah, she was re-energized.
Her career since has been all that she hoped for "and more," she said, reveling in the fact that people recognize her on the street or in malls and noting, "The little girls that just adore you it's awesome."
While Eberle tries to control her feelings these last few weeks of her career, she also looks forward to being able to do the things a gymnast can't mountain biking, skiing, wakeboarding and fitness competitions.She'll graduate in December and hopes to become a physician's assistant but thinks it may take awhile for her to get accepted to a P.A. school because she hasn't yet had the opportunity to do any work in hospitals because she's been too busy leading the Utes.