Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart Denver Abbie Thompson

For Denver’s Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, Values Must Be Lived

In Colorado, the plains make a breathtaking leap toward the sky. Mountains loom in the distance above the University of Denver campus, at times playing with sunlight, at others capped with snow. This landscape is part of what first attracted Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart to Denver when she arrived in 1998. The other parts all had to do with people, from dedicated faculty to kind-hearted citizens. Their support formed a sturdy base which, like the mountains, her program needed to stand tall.

Kutcher-Rinehart reflects this idea in her coaching philosophy: Build a championship tradition based on a foundation of teamwork, character and excellence. The three values are not just something she repeats. She pushes her team and herself to live them every day. So far, the results speak for themselves.

During Kutcher-Rinehart’s tenure, Denver has finished in the top 25 every season, qualified at least one gymnast to the NCAA championships 21 straight times and produced two individual national champions. However, she prefers to measure success through how her gymnasts carry themselves and how they continue to grow through adversity. She also prefers not to take sole credit.

“Melissa is the most humble person you will ever meet,” said fifth-year Mia Sundstrom. “She never wants to make it about her. She is so quick to take the blame and so fast to disperse the success. Our success is all her, and she deserves to take a compliment.”

Sundstrom added that her coach has an energy and a passion no one else can quite match. She somehow knows just what to say in the moment, whether it’s an encouraging word before a routine or a joke to lighten the mood when the pressure is on. Her support allows every member of the team to excel in the arena, in the classroom and in life after college. It’s clear that Kutcher-Rinehart was made to be a coach, and that nearly 30 years in she still absolutely loves it.

The first inkling that coaching might be a good fit occurred in the early ’90s, after Kutcher-Rinehart completed her gymnastics career at the University of Florida. She decided to stay an extra season as a student assistant where she was energized by a staff of strong, confident women. 

Judi Avener had taken over the head coaching role after the retirement of Ernestine Weaver, and seeing both succeed with different philosophies excited her. She enjoyed teaching leadership and being a mentor to young women with vastly different personalities. When the time came for her to pursue a master’s degree, she reached out to programs around the country looking for a way to continue her budding coaching career.

In 1994, Kutcher-Rinehart was hired by Bev Plocki as an assistant coach at Michigan where she specialized on balance beam. During the 1995 season, the Wolverines finished second in the country, a level of success she felt prepared her for her eventual head coaching role. It wasn’t just the accolades, though. Plocki was an incredible mentor, both directly and indirectly. 

Kutcher-Rinehart learned vital lessons, such as when to have individual athlete meetings, how to build trust and how to recruit. She also watched as Plocki balanced the difficult demands of her job with being a new mother. Kutcher-Rinehart’s experiences at Florida and Michigan showed her that it was possible to achieve success without the same coaching styles, and taught her the importance of remaining true to herself. If she could figure out what worked for her and stick to it, she could help student-athletes surpass their wildest expectations.

“What I fell in love with was the excitement of taking all of these individuals that have their own personalities and allowing them to have their own personalities and be their own people,” Kutcher-Rinehart explained. “How do you bring them together collectively to try and achieve a goal? I like the challenge of that piece.”

Across the country, a rising program in the mountains was preparing to give her that challenge. The University of Denver, coached by Dan Garcia, had won two national championships in Division II before making the jump to Division I in 1984. After the 1998 season, Garcia retired, and Denver was on the lookout for a new head coach. 

Kutcher-Rinehart, however, wasn’t exactly in a rush to leave her role at Michigan. She wanted to make sure wherever she landed was the right fit, somewhere she felt like she could enjoy living and where the athletic department truly cared about the growth of its gymnastics program. She was encouraged by a friend to reach out to Denver, but she knew almost nothing about the school or its gymnastics team. Still learning a lot at Michigan, she decided she wouldn’t move forward unless Denver reached out to her.

That summer, it did.

As soon as she stepped foot on campus, Kutcher-Rinehart knew she had found her fit. To someone who grew up in South Florida the mountains were magical, but standing even taller was the athletic department’s vision for what Denver gymnastics could be. The administration was committed to helping student athletes succeed in every one of its sports. Medicine and training staff were among the best in their fields, and sports psychologists demonstrated the passion Kutcher-Rinehart found growing in herself. 

Denver was a prestigious academic institution with great tutoring and a dedicated faculty. Kutcher-Rinehart witnessed a holistic approach to investing in student-athletes through their careers and even after they graduated. It was exactly the type of environment she wanted to be a part of. In August of 1998, she got her opportunity.

“I remember thinking this could be something really special,” Kutcher-Rinehart said. “We could offer something different than every other high-performing school out there. We could create a niche.”

Some of the same factors that excited Kutcher-Rinehart about Denver would prove challenging as she took on the head coaching role for the first time. A private school with just over 14,000 students in the 2021-22 academic year, Denver is less than half the size of many other top gymnastics programs. Before the Pioneers began to rise in the rankings, they lacked name recognition, and the costs of a private education could have deterred potential walk-ons. The athletic department is also unique in that it does not sponsor a football team, a major source of revenue for most schools. This meant that Kutcher-Rinehart not only had to oversee all events after specializing in balance beam, but she also had to get involved with fundraising, ticket sales, in-game event management and alumni relations. She describes it as the best education she could have gotten.

As she began to build her program, Kutcher-Rinehart continued focusing on how Denver’s differences were actually strengths. Without football, the athletic department was able to distribute its attention and resources more evenly across all sports. She felt the administration behind her, believing in her vision. Gymnastics was not second-tier. 

The small student population also meant much smaller class sizes, creating more meaningful connections between faculty and student athletes. To this day, professors and tutors attend Denver gymnastics meets and congratulate the team members by name. 

Kutcher-Rinehart feels that’s representative of how close-knit the university can be. At every turn, people are there for each other, getting better together.

This brings to mind the first of Kutcher-Rinehart’s three foundational values: teamwork. Sundstrom described her coach as the most value-driven person she’s ever met, and recounted how she has helped her freshman classes adjust to being part of the program. 

Every week of fall quarter, Kutcher-Rinehart had dinner with all the newcomers, explaining the team’s values and how each person could contribute. She asked questions about what was needed for each freshman to succeed both in and out of the gym, tackling any difficulties before they came up. Sundstrom said that this helped her understand what she needed to do and made things easier when she was pushed in the gym.

“All of us were just on board because she’d taken so much time out of her own day and her own family to spend time with us one on one,” Sundstrom said. “I’ll never forget some of those first meetings with her because we came to enjoy them so much.”

Kutcher-Rinehart explained that to her, teamwork is all about honoring the individual and remaining open-minded. She hopes her gymnasts value their teammates as people coming together to achieve a common goal, even when they have different perspectives.

“I don’t know that you’re going to get a bunch of 17- to 23-year-olds that agree on everything all the time,” she said. “But I think there’s something to say about respecting each other and realizing that we’re here for high-level academics and athletics and to hopefully find some meaningful friendships. We are part of a team that’s special.”

The second value, character, involves actions matching words. Kutcher-Rinehart is aware that to young fans, her athletes are role models. It’s important to show not only feats of strength and athleticism, but also the character Denver gymnastics strives to be known for. Even when there’s no one watching, the team focuses on integrity, trust, learning from coaches and resilience. 

Kutcher-Rinehart has brought in speakers, encouraged community service and encouraged growth in all aspects of life. Sundstrom explained that at the end of each practice, everyone participates in “put ups,” an activity where each athlete discusses how their actions aligned with team values. 

Sometimes it will be a thing they’re grateful for or a positive from the day. Other times Kutcher-Rinehart will give a specific prompt: “How were you competitive today?” “How did you encourage a teammate today?” “How did you lead by example?” It’s a short exercise, but it teaches the team how to live Denver’s values as they improve in their sport. Sundstrom said she finds herself repeating these lessons to herself just as often outside of the gym, whether it’s before a big presentation or when she’s stuck in traffic.

“One of Melissa’s biggest things that’s both a gymnastics correction and a life lesson is to not take things for granted,” she said. “Be directly in the moment. She’ll say that during drills so we don’t lose focus and do something silly like roll an ankle. I also find myself coming back to what she does before beam. She takes a nice deep breath with us, and says ‘positive self-talk, confident body language, salute and begin.’ I hear her voice in my head over and over again and then remember I’m not doing a beam routine.”

Excellence is pretty straightforward. Kutcher-Rinehart knows her team is capable of being one of the best in the country every year and pushes the gymnasts to believe it too. More importantly, she understands that every athlete she coaches has a life after gymnastics. She encourages everyone to seize the day academically, taking advantage of the many resources Denver offers its students. Whether it’s meeting consistently with academic support staff, applying for internships or pursuing volunteer experiences, the value of excellence will allow each athlete to reach new heights after graduation.

“Melissa tells us a lot that you don’t ‘have to,’ you ‘get to,’” Sundstrom said. “That’s an incredibly important way to look at everything in life.”

It’s a perspective that has become especially meaningful this year. Sundstrom and fellow fifth-year Lynnzee Brown both suffered season-ending Achilles injuries within a few weeks of each other, effectively retiring them and forcing an already small roster to dig deep. 

Kutcher-Rinehart said that her team’s response to the adversity is among her proudest accomplishments as a coach. Sundstrom explained that her empathy and commitment are a huge part of what made that happen. She described her coach as a second mother, who would help her out with anything she could possibly need. Kutcher-Rinehart made her feel valued as a member of the team whether or not she was in a lineup, and reminded her that there are other things she could do that were just as important as competing. 

Kutcher-Rinehart laughed with her, she cried with her. Sundstrom didn’t even have to ask. She said she never expected to have a relationship like that with a coach.

This genuine connection is what has allowed Denver gymnastics to be a successful program, no matter how success is defined. When Kutcher-Rinehart’s team qualified to its first national championship in 2001, she was more excited by how the athletes had corrected themselves through months of training, and by how they’d grown as people. She wasn’t that interested in the scores or the rankings. 

It’s a similar story for the Pioneers’ landmark 2019 season, consisting of an NCAA regional title and a berth in the first team final after the switch from the Super Six. Kutcher-Rinehart could have highlighted the results, but instead she brought up practice.

“I love practice, I love the attention to detail, the organization, I love fostering positive competition and I love watching the improvements. When you watch someone who is coming back from injury or learning a new skill try to make it confident and consistent, maybe they aren’t making it and all of a sudden they get it. Those are special moments. They’re some of my proudest moments, even in 2019.”

She also discussed how that season brought Denver its first sold-out home crowd, something Kutcher-Rinehart had worked for since she was hired. After all the years of promoting gymnastics any way she could, seeing Magness Arena filled with nearly 6,200 fans was a special moment. There were students and families, friends and faculty. It can be so easy to focus on what has happened most recently, but the slow buildup of new fans demonstrated that her values-oriented approach was working.

That’s not saying Kutcher-Rinehart didn’t acknowledge the results. She admitted she’s very competitive, and it was satisfying to prove wrong the people who told her Denver wouldn’t be able to win at such a high level. A huge student body or multimillion dollar TV contracts didn’t create the accomplishments, decades of alumni committed to growth did. 

Kutcher-Rinehart always had hope the foundation laid by her previous teams would lead them to such a moment, and when it happened, it was a reminder not to lose that hope. As this season has brought its obstacles, she’s reflected on that lesson.

“We don’t get to pick when these things happen to you,” she said. “Those are the times when you have to try and dig deep and show the most grit and resilience. These are the challenges we are presented and we’re going to make the most out of them.”

She described the 2019 team as one that had displayed that type of determination, and it paid off. Kutcher-Rinehart was overwhelmed with such a sense of pride and contentedness that she felt more at peace than excited when the results came up. When she was voted the National Coach of the Year, she said it was a testament to Denver’s hard work. From the athletes to the coaching staff to the athletic and academic support, everyone had contributed. In characteristic fashion, the award was not hers, but part of a larger legacy.

Success has continued for Denver, with its first Big 12 team title in 2021. This season it will host the conference championship for the first time, and next season an NCAA regional. That leaves the question of how Kutcher-Rinehart wants the legacy to grow in the future. There is an obvious answer, and she said it with a telltale glint in her eye.

“I would always strive to win a national championship. That would always be a dream goal.”

She continued, that regardless of whether or not Denver ever raises that trophy, what’s most important is how the Pioneers carry themselves. True champions are well-rounded student athletes that feel healthy and confident, taking the perseverance they learned and creating an impact wherever they end up. 

Life’s journey is completed day-by-day, and a championship tradition is built on a foundation of teamwork, character and excellence. Like climbing a tall and sturdy mountain, becoming great takes many steps. But the view at the top is amazing.

Article by Ryan Wichtendahl

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