Latter-day Saint gymnast Avery Neff flashes the “Ute” sign. The country’s top-rated college recruit recently committed to the University of Utah’s storied gymnastics program. (Instagram photo)
Tenacity, talent and gospel testimony vaulting Latter-day Saint gymnast Avery Neff to lofty heights
The United States’ top-rated college recruit recently committed to her hometown school, the University of Utah
By Jason Swensen
15 Feb 2023
It’s tempting to assume that Latter-day Saint gymnast Avery Neff — the United States’ top-rated college recruit and a multi-event national champ — was a “can’t-miss-kid” from the moment she stepped inside the gym as a spirited 7-year-old.
But, as Einstein wisely observed, “Most assumptions are wrong.”
“I was not good,” the 16-year-old told Church Ball Magazine, laughing. “Let me tell you, I was a terrible gymnast…. I was never on the podium. I was always just getting the participation awards.”
Neff may have initially struggled to, say, master forward rolls, tuck jumps, bridges and the other basics of gymnastics. But even as a beginner gymnast, she possessed one of the sport’s most essential qualities: tenacity.
“I was taught from a young age to never give up,” she said. “If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right. I'm very self-driven. If I start something, I’m doing it with all of my heart.”
Neff’s longtime coach, Ryan Kirkham, remembers his student initially having sloppy technique.
“However, there was something about Avery that I had never seen before in my gym,” said Kirkham. “In my 31 years of coaching, I have never worked with a kid as competitive and hungry as Avery… and she had no fear.”
In fact, Kirkham sometimes had to scratch Neff from competitions because he worried she would get hurt. Her experience and technique simply did not yet match her desire.
Eventually, Neff’s gymnastics skills caught up with her drive — resulting in Level 10 national titles in several events and, most recently, her much-anticipated decision to compete for her hometown school, the University of Utah.
Her freshman season at Utah begins in 2024.
Despite being a lifelong fan of Utah’s storied Red Rocks program, selecting which school to compete for was, she said, “the hardest decision I have ever made in my entire life.”
Counted among her suitors were some of the country’s top gymnastic programs — including Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Florida and Alabama. Ultimately, her prayerful choice to become a Ute came down to the opportunity to compete in front of her parents — Brandon and Tonya Neff — her relatives and her friends.
She was also drawn to her familiarity with Utah’s coaching staff and roster.
And, added the South Jordan, Utah, resident, “I had grown up wanting to be a Red Rock.”
Kirkham is confident Neff will immediately become a favorite with Utah’s fan base because she competes “with pure joy; you can just feel how much she loves gymnastics.”
There are few limits to her college gymnastics potential, added the coach. Training alongside fellow elite college gymnasts will both fuel Neff’s competitive fire and sharpen her technique.
“I fully expect Avery to be the NCAA national all-around champion,” said Kirkham.
Confidence in knowing “Heavenly Father is on my side”
One of Neff’s gymnastics heroes and role models, fellow Latter-day Saint and Olympic medalist MyKayla Skinner, was always candid about her religious convictions, even while competing at the sport’s highest level.
Neff is no different. Her 36,000-plus Instagram followers can click on the @churchofjesuschrist link that she includes on her Instagram homepage. And she is open about her spiritual certainty that she never competes alone. She can feel the Lord’s presence every time she steps onto the mat for training or meets..
“Prayer is huge for me,” she said. “During meets, I will probably say around 20 prayers.”
On one occasion, Neff was battling “a huge mental block” on the eve of an important competition. She found herself freezing up while executing challenging skills during a routine. “So I asked my dad for a priesthood blessing that helped so much. The Lord just kind of took over my train of thought. [During my routine] I didn’t think of anything — I just went for it.”
Simultaneously, prayer helps her remain humble. Falls and setbacks are the realities of high-level gymnastics. By invoking the Lord, Neff navigates the rough times — while remaining aware that her rivals are also enduring challenges of their own.
Neff added that her patriarchal blessing offers her additional comfort and direction. “It just gives me relief to know that Heavenly Father is on my side and that He really does care about me.”
Gymnastics national champion Avery Neff, a Latter-day Saint from Utah, balances the demands of her sport with homework, studying Mandarin and enjoying high school activities with her friends. (Instagram photo)
A junior at Utah’s Bingham High School, Neff finds balance outside of her gymnastics pursuits by doing, well, things that 16-year-olds do: Keeping up on her homework (she has studied Mandarin for several years). Cheering with friends at high school football games. Enjoying school dances. And, of course, spending time with her family — including her older brothers, Boston and Carson.
The excitement of high-profile college gymnastics awaits — but Neff is focused on key individual events that are fast approaching. On Feb. 24, she will compete in the prestigious Nastia Liukin Cup in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a two-time medalist.
In 2023, Neff is targeting the podium’s top spot.