In 1980, Megan McCunniff traveled from small town Iowa to Salt Lake City to begin her collegiate gymnastics career at the University of Utah. With two national team members in her freshman class, McCunniff was not the gymnast you would have initially pegged to become a superstar for the Utes. In fact, former head coach Greg Marsden had given her a scholarship sight-unseen after taking a call from her club coach who preached that he had a diamond in the rough in McCunniff.
Thirty nine years later, Megan McCunniff, now Megan Marsden, is leaving the Utah gymnastics program as one of the most decorated gymnasts and coaches in collegiate history.
“She’s a sports icon in the state of Utah,” Tom Farden, the current head coach of Utah gymnastics, said.
After a gymnastics career that saw Marsden win three individual NCAA titles and four team titles, she went on to become an assistant coach, associate head coach and, for the past nine years, co-head coach for Utah, working alongside her husband Greg—the man who first brought her to Salt Lake City—until he retired in 2015.
But becoming a coach wasn’t the original plan for Marsden. Not until near the end of her gymnastics career did she realize she wanted to be able to help others have the same experience she did by attending the University of Utah. According to Marsden, “It wasn’t even the word coach that I aspired to be.”
“An assistant coaching position opened up, and I really cared a lot about helping Greg bring other women into the program and having them experience what I had experienced,” she said. “My total collegiate experience as an athlete and a student and the lessons I learned through my sport and through Greg as our leader really had me wanting to pass that along. And the best way to do that was to be one of the coaches. Together as a husband and wife combo, our life goal was to keep bringing in great gymnasts and put the finishing touches on them as they head out into the world after gymnastics.”
In 35 years on the coaching staff at Utah, Marsden’s commitment to the team and putting athletes first was evident from the start. She credits her ability to relate to the athletes after having gone through the experience herself as the key to building relationships that foster growth both as a gymnast and in life.
Kim Tessen is a Utah local who grew up watching the Marsdens lead the Red Rocks, and having just completed her junior season as a Ute, she can now personally attest to the impact Megan Marsden has had on the program.
“It’s the very personal relationship that she has with all of her girls,” Tessen said. “She’s like a second mother figure to a lot of us; she’s always asking us not just about school and gymnastics but the things going on outside of that. Whether it’s social life or family life or whatever else is going on, she’s always there for you no matter what.”
Another testament to Marsden’s athlete-first mentality is the manner in which she retired. There was no big announcement, nor did she tell the team when she initially decided it would be her final season. She waited until they returned from the 2019 NCAA championships to let the team know that her time as a coach had come to an end.
“I definitely wish at one point we could have taken a moment to appreciate that it’s Megan’s last meet or home meet,” Utah junior Missy Reinstadtler said. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but it definitely says a lot when they don’t make it about themself.”
Despite having won 10 national team titles between her career as a gymnast and a coach, Marsden doesn’t list a single award as her proudest accomplishment. Instead, she talks about all the current and former Utah gymnasts that she and Greg have had the opportunity to coach.
“It’s every one of those women. I’m most proud of the athletes I’ve had a chance to impact their lives for the better. And they consistently show that as they continue to support the program, come back to visit and stay in touch with Greg and I,” she said. “They are our extended family, and I am extremely proud of those women and their lives.”
And when asked who had the biggest impact on her as a coach, “the athletes” fit the bill as the answer once again.
“There are milestone moments with each of them—sometimes it’s the simplest of things,” she said before giving an example of senior Makenna Merrell-Giles finally perfecting her salute in the final meet of her career. “That happens to be performance related, but sometimes these things can be life skills. And I can name these things with every athlete that comes through. I don’t feel like I can name one, or name one moment of being the most significant. If I had my list of alumni, I could name a significant thing about each of them.”
Marsden’s calming attitude and ability to personally relate to the gymnasts was vastly different from the intensity that Greg brought when he coached, but the balance, or “yin and yang” as Megan calls it, between the two contrasting styles is what helped lead the Utes to success. Knowing this, the Marsdens enacted a “master plan” to ensure that the legacy of Utah gymnastics will move on in good hands.
Farden was named sole head coach of Utah upon the announcement of Megan’s retirement after being co-head coach the previous four seasons and an assistant at Utah since 2011. The first non-Marsden to be head coach of Utah gymnastics first caught the attention of the duo back when he was head coach at SEMO.
“[Greg] called me a couple times from Utah, and I thought it was a little weird. I didn’t know, but at the time he was just trying to get to know me a little bit better,” Farden said. “When I turned down the head job at Utah State, Greg was the first one to call me asking, ‘Did you like Utah?’ And I go ‘As a state? Yeah it’s perfect’. Then a couple years later he called saying, ‘Do you still like Utah? Cause I want you to come work with me.’”
It wasn’t only the success Farden had while head coach at SEMO that the Marsden’s liked, but his coaching style and philosophy was very similar to Greg’s. When Greg retired, Megan had no interest in becoming sole head coach, so she had Farden step in and take over the responsibilities vacated by Greg. The transition was seamless thanks to the leadership exhibited by the Marsdens.
“Simply put, they’re the gold standard in NCAA gymnastics in every aspect,” Farden said. “I’m humbled that I was able to learn as much as I could from both of them. The way they work with their fans, the way they work with their athletes, the way they work with the administration, it’s incredible.”
Newly named assistant coach Carly Dockendorf joined the team back in the 2018 season as a volunteer assistant coach, and to Megan it was apparent almost immediately that she would be a good yin to Farden’s yang.
“As my husband found in Tom, I saw some things in Carly that I felt like would be what I would choose to carry on taking great care of the athletes. Making sure there’s more to this than just gymnastics. That when they leave this program, they’ve gotten so much more,” Marsden said.
With that in place, and a longing to join her husband in retirement, Megan felt an overwhelming feeling of “now” when thinking of the right time to retire.
“It became right for me at this point,” she said. “I just feel like the athletes are going to be taken care of, and that is most important to me.”
Article by Brandis Heffner
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!