When you’ve zeroed in on a destination, looking in the rearview mirror can seem like an unnecessary glance backward. But for the University of Denver Women’s Gymnastics head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, this coming Saturday’s competition encouraged some reflection. With more than two decades’ worth of history to mentally scroll through, one might not think a recent sub-par finish would rate as a career highlight for Kutcher-Rinehart. “This past weekend ranks highly among my all-time most rewarding coaching experiences,” she says of the team’s final regular season matchup against No. 18 University of Arkansas, No. 12 Oregon State University, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hamstrung by injuries, the Pioneers took third in the all-around competition at home on March 13, a finish that slid them down to their current ranking of 15th heading into this weekend’s meet. But for Kutcher-Rinehart, who has led the team to regionals with regularity as well as to five NCAA Nationals team berths—including the program’s first team finals appearance in 2019, where they finished fourth in the nation—the mid-March competition spoke to precisely what makes the Pioneers special.
For starters, DU’s gymnasts hit every single one of their routines while under immense pressure with a limited roster. That was a testament to the group’s grit as was, Kutcher-Rinehart says, how the athletes were able to close the gap between the way they had practiced and how they competed. “I felt like I could see the teamwork from the floor,” she says. “The energy, the love, the passion, the commitment.”
Kutcher-Rinehart certainly knows of what she speaks when it comes to commitment. Although the crimson-and-gold had built a foundation by competing—and winning two national championships—in Division II under onetime head coach Dan Garcia, Kutcher-Rinehart took over a program in 1998 that was unlike the powerhouses she was accustomed to.
Having competed at the University of Florida and assistant coached at the University of Michigan, Kutcher-Rinehart probably could’ve nabbed a head coaching position at a school where she didn’t have to court donors or handle marketing and event management. But for a medium-size private school, DU’s ardent investment in women’s sports drew her to the pretty campus at the intersection of University Boulevard and East Evans Avenue. “You know, I didn’t have to fundraise at the University of Michigan or the University of Florida,” she says with a laugh. “But I did here, and I look back at those years and building those skills, and think to myself, What a blessing that was.”
Twenty-four years later, Kutcher-Rinehart and her gymnasts credit that level of investment and the close-knit nature of the university as things that have helped set the program apart in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive college gymnastics landscape. Ranking in the top 25 every season with Kutcher-Rinehart at the helm, the Pioneers have sent individual gymnasts to the NCAA Nationals every year since 2000 and have two national champions on floor exercise: Nina McGee in 2016 and current fifth-year senior Lynnzee Brown in 2019.
After leaving the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference in 2016 to join the Big 12 as an affiliate member, the Pioneers have swiftly become a fierce presence, which became very clear in their upset over number one ranked University of Oklahoma for the Big 12 title in 2021.“If we want to be the best, we have to be able to push ourselves and compete against the best,” Kutcher-Rinehart says about the jump to the Big 12, a Power 5 conference that brings with it more exposure and consistently top-ranked competition. “It’s great when you’re with the number one team in the country, that’s how you improve. That’s how you measure yourself. That’s how you get better, and so it’s certainly elevated us in a competitive sense.”
Competition—stiff competition—is exactly what the Pioneers are expecting to encounter this weekend, especially with three of the team’s fifth-year seniors out with Achilles injuries, including Brown, who scored three perfect 10s last season, one of which helped seal DU’s Big 12 championship. Although they’re short on depth and their competitors are Olympic-level gymnasts consistently putting out top scores, that doesn’t mean DU plans to simply hand over its title. Sophomore Rylie Mundell and freshman Mia Hebinck are both coming off recent personal bests (Mundell scored a 9.950 on vault last weekend and Hebinck a 9.950 on bars on March 5) and are eyeing potential individual event titles. Sophomore Jessica Hutchinson, who led the team to hard-fought wins with her all-around scores through much of the season and also notched career-high 9.950s on beam and floor this past month, is expected to continue her conference-leading streak in the all-around and build momentum alongside Mundell and Hebinck for potential individual appearances on the NCAA Nationals’ stage.
While Kutcher-Rinehart remains realistic heading into the conference championship and regionals after a season characterized by adversity, she does envision another final four appearance in the team’s future—and, eventually, a team national championship. Right now, though, she and her team are mainly hoping to savor the journey, and want Denver fans to join them. “We always talk about competing with freedom, because we’ve put in the work,” Hutchinson says. “Now this is our time to just really enjoy it and be in the moment.”