Merkley has competed on the bars in every meet since her 2007 freshman season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Located off of U.S. Highway 89 in southern Utah is a little town called Marysvale with a population of only 418 people. Each day the BYU gymnastics team has a meet, the residents of Marysvale stop everything to gear up in their BYU gymnastics t-shirts and watch the town hero—and granddaughter, cousin or niece—fly on the bars.
Almost all of these 418 people are related to junior 5-foot-1 uneven bars standout McKell Poulson-Merkley. But the support of the Gibbs and Poulson families isn’t all that Merkley receives; countless teammates, coaches, friends and family members are present to cheer on the girl that many said didn’t have talent.
“I didn’t put her in gymnastics because I saw that talent in her, but because she was always hanging on the monkey bars and I wanted to channel all the energy she had into something productive,” said Merkley’s mother, Sherri Poulson. “We called her ‘little gorilla’ after the popular cartoon show.”
Not only did this “little gorilla” channel all the energy she had into something productive, she found that through hard work one can accomplish anything.
Merkley grew up in Orem, Utah, and then she and her family moved to Payson, Utah when she was seven. Shortly after the move she started a sport that would take up her afternoons for 13-straight years.
She didn’t play any other sports because Merkley claims she can’t catch, throw or do anything with a ball. Luckily putting all her time, heart and soul into gymnastics paid off.
Even after hours of practice at the Nebo Gymnastics Club, she could always be found in the rafters of the garage doing pull-ups.
“I thought gymnastics was fun because you just get to flip around all day,” Merkley said. “Bars is my favorite event, it feels like you’re flying.”
Although the uneven bars is Merkley’s favorite event, her parents’ hearts stop during every routine.
“I would literally stop breathing while she was doing her event,” said Sherri. “When she was younger it was scarier, but I still hold my breath hoping that she comes out without an injury and sticks her tricks.”
While gymnastics is a seemingly difficult sport for parents and loved ones to watch, her father, Kris Poulson, said she always got up after every fall.
“She has pretty much done it on her own,” said Kris. “We supported her, but she put in all the work and effort. She was never the one that was gifted or with the most talent, but she was the one that never gave up. She was the only one on her level-five team that lasted through to level 10.”
Because she has worked so hard, she landed a collegiate gymnastics career at BYU, following in the footsteps of former Payson teammate, Kylee Draper-Marvin.
“Kylee is two years older than me and started at BYU while I was still in high school, said Merkley. “She made me start thinking about attending BYU as she explained that the coaches and the girls were great.”
Even after being recruited by BYU, being a top performer seemed a little out of reach, even after the first day of practice.
“My first day of practice freshman year we were doing split-jumps on beam,” said Merkley. “Shawna [Mertz] said ‘You need to watch your first foot when you come down.’ I watched my first foot as it slid right past the beam and straddled it on the first day. That was my most embarrassing moment.”
This feeling of uneasiness wasn’t only shared by Merkley. BYU head coach Brad Cattermole had similar thoughts when she first started the program.
“When she came here I looked at her and I thought, ‘If she works really hard over the next year or two she might be able to work herself into the lineup somewhere along the way,’” Cattermole said. “There was no way that how she started would qualify her to compete for us the first year. But she is one of those kids that is an incredibly hard worker.”
Cattermole said that although many athletes have correction go in one ear and out the other, Merkley was intelligent and would take correction when given. Taking correction for five months while practicing with BYU her freshman year, she landed a spot in the bars lineup shortly after her freshman season started.
“To go from almost the football equivalent of not being able to catch a football to making the starting lineup in five months, was incredible,” said Cattermole. “She is an extremely hard worker and that’s how she made the bar lineup. She got so good at it that she was chosen to start the rotation, a prized position.”
Starting the rotation is where she has been ever since, but don’t think this came easy. She continues to work hard day in and day out. After practice she can be seen with a face redder than all the other gymnasts.
“She is a great leader and gets things done,” said Cattermole. “The best athletes leave it all in the gym—and that’s McKell; when she leaves the gym, she doesn’t leave a lot in the tank.”
Through all the hard work, her mother has always been impressed with her uncanny ability to be cheerful.
“If she has a bad meet or a bad day, she’s trying to cheer other people up,” said Sherri. “One of her best attributes is that she is always happy when other people succeed. She’s a great team player and always has been. She wouldn’t expect something from other people that she doesn’t expect from herself.”
When asked about what athlete she looks up to, Merkley quickly mentioned her teammate, Megan Donehue.
“Whenever I look around she’s always working hard and cheering on everyone else,” said Merkley. “There is never a time when I have questioned her.”
Interestingly, both Donehue and Merkley push each other each day at practice.
“She’s the person I look up to,” said Donehue. “Sometimes I have a bad day and want to take it easy at practice, but I look at her and she is always going. She’s definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”
Both Merkley and Donehue look up to one another as the rest of the team looks up to both of them, choosing them as the 2008-09 team captains.
“They go and go and go and never stop working,” said Cattermole. “Everyone on the team looks up to them for support and feedback.”
As her junior season will soon start, Merkley plans to compete more and make it to nationals with her BYU gymnastics family.
“I’m with the team all the time, and they have become a family to me,” said Merkley. “We have classes, practice and weight-lifting together, and then we hang out on the weekends. They are fun girls, I love them.”
The BYU gymnastics family has extended into Merkley’s home. Every Easter the entire BYU gymnastics team has a chance to celebrate Easter at the Poulson home in Payson. Since many of the gymnasts live too far to go home for the holiday, they are able to spend the weekend four-wheeling and enjoying home-cooked meals.
With the love from the gymnastics team and her family, Merkley has been able to accomplish what she has done thus far and is grateful for their support.
“My family is half the crowd when they all come,” she said. “My mom even made posters for each girl with their names.”
The athletic roots run deep as Merkley’s mother played volleyball and was on the drill team in high school while her dad was captain of the football and basketball teams.
The oldest of four children, Merkley has a brother who just graduated from Payson High School, a sister that is a sophomore cheerleader and a sister in eighth grade who dances and plays soccer.
Also adding support to the Poulson family as McKell adapted to a new last name is her husband Daryl Merkley of Aug. 22 this year.
“We met in high school, but we never dated,” said McKell. “He was a senior when I was a sophomore. He served a mission and continued to be a good friend to my family. He hung out with my family and then we started dating last summer.”
Eight months later they were engaged and after five months they were married.
Not only does McKell love her brand-new husband, but she also loves to help people and make a difference in people’s lives.
“I want to make a difference in the world,” McKell said. “I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it, but I hope I can help people along the way.”
She is studying psychology, which she will finish in 2010 and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in occupational therapy or work for a center for change in helping people overcome eating disorders.
“After BYU I may go to school at the U, they have a good occupational therapy program,” said McKell. “I may switch over there, but I will always cheer for BYU.”
After graduating from BYU and spending 13 years surrounded by gymnastics, McKell is going to take a break. In order to stay in the gymnastics scene, she hopes to get her judging license, but isn’t interested in coaching.
“I’ve coached since I was 14 and it’s just not my passion,” she said. “I coached pre-school when I was in high school and after high school I coached through level 10. I’d rather hang out with them than yell at them.”
While she would’ve made a great coach, she will finish up her last two seasons at BYU giving her all as she’s always done.
Not only will Marysvale, the Poulson and the Merkley families be cheering for McKell, but also her hometown of Payson. All are very proud and supportive of the Payson-native gymnast.
“We’re really proud of her,” said Sherri. “She has worked very hard, is very self motivated and self-driven. She succeeds and will continue to succeed at everything she does.”