When Megan Marsden stepped down as co-head coach of the Utah gymnastics program in 2019, Tom Farden had an important job to do. Now the sole leader of the program, it was his job to fill out the rest of the program’s staff. Luckily for Farden, the ideal candidate for one of those vacancies was right down the hall at the Dumke Gymnastics Center.
Entering her third year in Salt Lake City, Carly Dockendorf cemented herself as one of the most integral members of the Utah gymnastics empire. She has been something of a Swiss army knife for the program, serving in various coaching and administrative roles.
On top of all that, “Carly is a multifaceted coach,” Farden said. “She brings a competitive fire that maximizes her event, our program and everything in between.” Because of this, her transition from director of recruiting to assistant coach was a no-brainer. Since arriving at Utah for the 2018 season, Dockendorf honed in on the skills she’s gathered in various athletic, coaching and personal roles to take the program to new heights.
A quick glance at Dockendorf’s biography on the Utah Athletics website reveals an impressive list of accomplishments, all of which have made Dockendorf into the well-rounded coach and motivator she is today. But before all of that, she was a club gymnast in British Columbia.
Dockendorf has played a role in recruiting various gymnasts from countries other than the United States. When she was a high school gymnast exploring her options for college, however, it was less common for international gymnasts to compete in the NCAA. Her club teammate, Kim Allan, was the first gymnast she knew personally to head to the U.S. for college. In an interesting display of foreshadowing, Allan went to Utah, so Dockendorf had an introduction to the program at a young age.
“She came back that first summer and told me I needed to do this,” Dockendorf said. “She loved how team-oriented it was. I thought it would be great to compete in gymnastics while also enjoying that aspect.” Dockendorf had already been exposed to team culture while playing soccer at a young age, and she was eager to get back to it.
Dockendorf ultimately chose to compete at the University of Washington. Her career from 2002 to 2005 was impressive enough on its own—she earned six 10.0s, one of which came on bars and earned her the Pac-12 championship title.
But gymnastics wasn’t the only area in which she excelled. Dockendorf also held the highly unusual role (for gymnasts) of two-sport athlete while at Washington. Beginning in her sophomore year, she competed for the school’s track team as a pole vaulter, advancing as far as the NCAA championship. After graduating from Washington, she would go on to compete for the Canadian national track team, narrowly missing a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.
Dockendorf credits her involvement in various sports with shaping her philosophy in coaching and desire to motivate her fellow athletes. “I always try to keep things simple,” she said. “It’s easy to get caught up in technical stuff, but simplicity is effective in any sport.”
But of all her athletic involvement, Dockendorf said it was her time as captain of the Washington gymnastics team that opened her eyes to the possibility of coaching. “I loved helping my teammates. I wanted them to believe in themselves and have the tools to get to the next level, and I thought coaching could help me get there, too.”
After coaching both gymnastics and soccer for some time after graduating college, Dockendorf took a job across town as an assistant coach at Seattle Pacific University, an experience she described as “the best thing that could have happened to me.” For Dockendorf, coaching at the Division II level was an opportunity to be involved in almost every aspect of the program.
“You’re not gifted with a lot of money and resources, so you end up getting your hands in a lot of areas,” she said. “I started to understand everything that goes into a program, other than showing up and coaching athletes.”
In addition to the hands-on coaching experience she gained at SPU, Dockendorf enjoyed the mentorship of two gymnastics stalwarts: former head coach Laurel Tindall and current program lead Sarah Marshall. Dockendorf got to work with these individuals on every aspect of the program, from coaching to recruiting; they even set up and took down all of the equipment for SPU’s home meets.
Dockendorf’s husband, Henry Ruggiero, works in athletics as well, focusing more on strength and conditioning. In 2017, he accepted a job with Real Salt Lake, the Major League Soccer team located a few hours from the University of Utah’s campus. Just as he took a leap to accept the position and move his family from Seattle to the Beehive state, Dockendorf took a chance and contacted the head coaches of the top gymnastics program there. She soon found herself in a volunteer coaching role with the Utes.
Head coach Tom Farden saw Dockendorf’s experience at Seattle Pacific as an asset and something to which he could relate. Like Dockendorf, he came to Utah with a background in coaching a smaller program at SEMO. “At those schools you wear a lot of hats and learn the nuances and ins and outs of things that happen in a program,” he said. “You appreciate coaches who come up through the ranks.”
Recognizing that Utah was “among the gold standard in college gymnastics,” Dockendorf sought to learn as much as she could from the beginning of her time at Utah. “I essentially became a student of the sport again.”
Though she was working in an unpaid role, Dockendorf slowly made herself indispensable and gained valuable experience along the way. Farden gave examples of the challenges she had to tackle that are unique to a program like Utah’s: “You have more than 9,000 season ticket holders and boosters coming by every day. Since she was here working from 9 to 5, it led to her learning the holistic approach to how Utah’s program is run.”
After a year, Dockendorf’s volunteer position morphed into a paid role as the director of recruiting and player development for the Utes. “Player development” involved making sure student-athletes were progressing with their academics and, for newer individuals, their transition to college. Here came another opportunity to familiarize herself with Utah’s systems and policies.
“Carly wasn’t able to coach in this role, but I thought she could learn about the intricacies of our recruiting and the system I’ve built at Utah,” Farden said.
It was an opportunity for Dockendorf to hone in on the skills she’d developed at Seattle Pacific with newfound resources. “With smaller DII schools, you don’t have an endless recruiting budget,” she said. “You have to be creative with your resources and come up with ways to attract a recruit to a school where you don’t have a full scholarship for them, where DI programs offer some additional opportunities.”
Farden was so impressed with Dockendorf’s work that he eyed her immediately for the assistant coach position in his new regime. She joined new hires Garrett Griffith and Courtney McCool Griffeth (themselves veterans of Division II program, Texas Woman’s) as members of a revamped Utah coaching staff. Under their tutelage, the Utes enjoyed a transcendent 2020 season.
In 2020, Dockendorf was the primary beam coach. As with almost all her duties, she used prior knowledge to take the lineup to the next level in terms of presentation. Her original position as a volunteer assistant coach almost exclusively focused on choreography, as did much of her work at SPU.
“Carly reminds us that it’s not all about hitting your skills [on beam],” freshman beam anchor Abby Paulson said. “It’s your dance, the way you make your skills look. Watching a routine that’s a hit versus a hit routine with that extra presentation adds a ‘wow’ [factor].”
Farden praised Dockendorf’s choreography and credited her with keeping the program on the cutting edge. “Having good choreography can be a separator, and [Carly’s] was part of why our beam and floor lineups looked great this year,” he said.
Coaching beam comes with challenges unique to the event. “The biggest challenge on beam is the mental side,” Dockendorf said. “Vault and bars go quickly while floor is exciting and high-energy, but beam is slow so you have more time to think and add words in your mind.”
To cope with the challenge, Dockendorf revamped the team’s beam program and innovated the assignments with more of a focus on the mental side. “We did a lot of assignments based on pressure; we made them more uncomfortable in practice so they were more confident when they competed,” she said.
The choreography and increased repetition under tough circumstances were a winning combination. Under Dockendorf’s tutelage, Utah’s beam ranking soared nine spots from 2019 to 2020 to become the second best lineup in the country. Paulson’s 10 on the event was one of two perfect marks earned by Ute gymnasts during the season.
To Dockendorf, it all comes down to making sure athletes believe in themselves and their abilities. “You’re strongest when you’re most confident,” she said. “In gymnastics, if you lack confidence, it will be glaring.”
If Utah’s rise over the past season has been any indication, confidence seems to be in no short supply in Salt Lake City. Though the Utes weren’t able to finish their season, they remain on track to continue building the program back to its national championship years.
“I’ve always strived to push people beyond what they thought they could do,” Dokendorf continued. “We’ve tried to create an atmosphere where athletes can be better and then still be hungry to push further beyond their comfort zone the next day.”
When it comes to that mentality, Dockendorf could just as easily be talking about herself.
Recap by Katherine. Weaver
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