New approach vaults gymnastics coach to her highest highs

When Melissa Kutcher showed up in heels to interview for the job as DU’s head gymnastics coach, they handed her a hard hat. Perhaps it was foreshadowing.

It was 1998. The Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness, like the women’s gymnastics program, was under construction. Kutcher had been a college gymnast at the University of Florida and most recently an assistant at the University of Michigan. But on this day, she would accept her first head coaching job with a philosophy that, like her fashion mix that day, put grind over glamour.

“Success is a journey,” says Kutcher-Rinehart, who elongated her last name after marrying then-assistant men’s basketball coach Todd Rinehart, now DU’s vice chancellor for enrollment. “I [just] didn’t realize how much time it would take to build all the pieces of the program.”

On paper, it doesn’t seem like it took long at all. Every season she’s been here, DU finished in the top 25 in the country and qualified for NCAA Regionals. Each year this millennium, a DU gymnast reached the NCAA Nationals, including a dozen all-Americans and individual national champions Nina McGee and Lynnzee Brown. The entire team has qualified five times.

But a season like 2019? It’s what Kutcher-Rinehart has expected and yearned for since her arrival.

The Pioneers smashed school records and reached the NCAA team finals for the first time, finishing fourth. Kutcher-Rinehart and her staff swept national coach-of-the-year honors.

Finally. The long-awaited breakthrough. Owed, in part, to a gentler approach.

“For the first time, [I said,] ‘We’re not going to worry about scores; we’re not going to worry about winning,’” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “‘We’re going to do the gymnastics we’re proud of. All the rest is going to fall into place.’ In the past, I would maybe say it. Now I look back and realize I wasn’t doing it.”

Kutcher-Rinehart’s mindset has evolved on and off the mat. Now the mother of two teenagers, she has learned to change her boundaries and priorities. Some days, the kids have to wait. On other days, “my kids are sick or need me to be at their school or sporting event. I’m going to be with my family.”

The rest of the time, she’s with the family she recruited. Each gymnast has been handpicked as much for who she is as for what she can do.

“She cares about us as whole human beings,” says former captain Claire Kern (BSBA ’19). “She wants the best for me as an athlete, a person, a student and someone who’s going to be looking for a job. I knew without a doubt from day one that she had my best interests at heart.”

What distinguishes Kutcher-Rinehart, says Julie Campbell, is the depth and breadth of her hard work. Campbell, DU’s associate athletic director of Pioneer health and performance, has worked with Kutcher-Rinehart on a daily basis since arriving in 2000, lured to Denver in part by talk of a passionate young coach.

Without the resources of most of her competitors, Kutcher-Rinehart has duties that extend beyond head coach. She’s a fundraiser and marketer who also works with nutritionists and psychologists, looking for any edge she can give her team.

“Everything she does, she does at the top of her game,” Campbell says. “We’ve worked so well for so long because we believe in the same philosophy: Investing in lives, careers and futures is equally as important as athletic success.”

Kutcher-Rinehart’s definition of success is wide-ranging: a fourth-place trophy from the NCAA Championships, a gymnast overcoming injuries to compete on senior night, an athlete landing a summer internship, an alum finishing grad school.

Nonetheless, she remains thirsty for a national championship. If Kutcher-Rinehart sticks that landing, it will be with athletes committed to the team as well as academics and advancing the program. No cutting corners. Eagerness will never trump ethics or faith. The athletes understand their coach’s commitment.

“There are times when it’s hard to put those first, especially when you want to win so badly,” Kern says. “But I think we’ve seen that you can do it the right way, you can do it ethically, and still have great success.”

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