In collegiate gymnastics, it's an honor to be the leadoff person on the event. It means the coach and team consider that athlete to be steady enough to not make mistakes and start a ripple effect that could jeopardize those who follow.

It's also a thankless task because, no matter how well that first person performs, it's still the first person, and the judges can't start her score too high or they'll have problems finding scores for the rest of the performers. After all, the judges only have 10 points to work with, and the best people on the team usually go last.

Utah junior co-captain Kristen Riffanacht has become the exception to the rule.

She scored an almost unheard-of 9.95 to lead off Utah's floor set against Arizona State in a Huntsman Center dual meet on March 18.

Showing that wasn't just a hiccup by the judges that night, she got 9.85 as Utah's floor leadoff at BYU a week later and, with four judges the NCAA selected for postseason meets watching, Riffanacht opened the Ute floor campaign April 9 in the Huntsman Center in the North Central Regional earning 9.90.

She was the first performer after Ute 2002 world beam champion Ashley Postell fell on beam, and Riffanacht's 9.90 sent the Utes on a tear that saw them rocket back into first place with a 49.525 team floor total that allowed them to win the regional with ease.

Thanks to its regional victory, No. 1-ranked Utah — as well as No. 13-ranked BYU, the regional runner-up, and Southern Utah University at-large all-arounder Leah Sakhitab, will compete Thursday in the team preliminaries at the 2005 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at Auburn University.

Utah will compete in the afternoon session, starting at noon MDT, while BYU and Sakhitab go in the evening, starting at 5 MDT. The top three teams out of each six-team session advance to Friday night's Super Six national championships.

It is the 30th straight time Utah has qualified to nationals, and Riffanacht's floor score helped get her team back on track after counting a fall on beam.

Riffanacht is also scheduled to perform on balance beam Thursday and is the first alternate in the other two events. "She's working an event that two years ago I said she'd never work for us, balance beam," marvels coach Greg Marsden. "She's one of our most dependable beam workers now.

"She's our blue-collar gymnast. She just does whatever we ask her to and is always ready to accept her role whenever we decide what that is. Sometimes that's one event, sometimes that's four events."

Riffanacht started her season off pretty well but then suffered a late-January hamstring injury that took time to heal and was tough on her mentally. "I couldn't train a lot, and I lost a lot of confidence from lack of numbers and lack of training," Riffanacht said.

She spent the idle time working on her head. "I did work a little bit more on mental game plan. Greg always stresses competitive mindset, and that's my problem," said Riffanacht, who has since tried to do things in practice that she would do in a meet — "You know, raise my hand (as in saluting the judges) when I'm ready to go, picture myself on the podium, how you're going to react when you do a routine.

"I think I was thinking too much about things instead of letting my body do what it does," said the exercise and sport science major from Cheshire, Conn. "I put too much pressure on myself to make sure everything is right and trying to get in the lineup. When I started to just let things happened, it just kind of clicked."

Nowhere better than on floor the last several meets, starting with that 9.95. "It absolutely surprised me," Riffanacht said, "because I don't feel like I'm that good when I'm out there. I've scored like a 9.925 before, but I never scored that high, let alone to lead off."

Riffanacht is expected to do at least beam and floor Thursday, and if others have problems, Marsden could call on her for the other two events.

Unfortunately, she's working now with a soft-tissue shoulder problem that could hamper her. Marsden, though, considers her a tough competitor. "She's very tough. She never complains. She rarely cuts back on practice," he said, hoping she can tough it out for one more weekend this season.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com