Brandon's Blog: Women's Gymnastics Back to Form With Fast Start
Joanna Sampson

Jan. 21, 2013

University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page,, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.

For a team used to winning championships, the 2012 season was a frustrating one for the Michigan women's gymnastics team. The team had no seniors, and injuries magnified the lack of depth for a team that started with only 11 gymnasts, a relatively small number by NCAA standards.

All those factors placed a heavy burden on the team. Student-athletes were asked to step up and take on different roles -- roles that underclassmen were not ready for. It was a difficult time for the entire team.

Today the story is completely different. Three weeks into the season, the Wolverines are ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation, posting the best start in the program's history.

True, it is early in the season, but these Michigan gymnasts wanted to come out of the gate fast and still work their way up through the season for even higher scores, peaking for the Big Ten and NCAA championships in a few months.

How does a gymnastics team develop this type of plan? As in all sports, it starts with the early training period.

The 2013 team started to work on full routines earlier than ever before. The plan was to get this team into the full rigors of championship competition as fast as possible -- and so far it is working.

The key to the team's success from here until the final competition is focus. The margin of error is slight. One small misstep can be the difference between first or second place, a win or a loss, or winning a championship.

Gymnastics is scored as a team sport, but it is the individual that creates those scores for the team. There still needs to be a team leader and Michigan has two.

Joanna Sampson and Katie Zurales are those leaders. The two team captains have taken it upon themselves to return Michigan to its rightful place among the best teams in the country. Last year, while the team just missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships, Sampson and Zurales advanced as individuals, representing Michigan on the national stage.

The result was that both Sampson and Zurales came back hungrier than ever.

Sampson, for her part, returned as a serious and confident gymnast. Through three meets this season, Sampson has already set career highs in the all-around and on balance beam. After her all-around win in the dual meet against defending Big Ten champion Nebraska, Sampson was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week for the first time in her career.

Zurales, a three-time NCAA All-American who has also posted a career best in the all-around this season, is returning for her senior year more confident than ever. While Sampson takes a more serious tone in practice, Zurales displays her leadership in a more outward fashion. Regardless of their technique, the two captains are most responsible in playing a pivotal role in readying the entire team for future success.

It is also allowing the freshmen on the roster to grow into their roles by seeing the commitment and work that's needed to compete at this level before they have to perform in competition.

The season is long, and to keep a team performing at this high a level is not easy. The day-to-day routine can lead to a loss in focus. It is the job of the coaching staff to be careful this malaise does not inhibit the team.

Understanding what they have done to date and what they are doing now makes me feel confident this team is not cresting too early.

The early part of the season was devoted to consistency in all events. The team kept with the basics. Nothing fancy, just staying with routines that would allow the team to gain confidence and score well.

Now the fun begins. The staff is tweaking the routines, making the degree of difficulty a little higher each week. The quick start is allowing this skill development to be put in place even faster. And the week-by-week improvement as evidenced during Saturday's performance against Illinois is an indicator the plan is working.

What a difference one year makes. Despite the challenges, this team never lost hope in 2012. Now, the lessons they learned one year ago are helping them to be successful and appreciate the good times.

Good luck to our women's gymnastics team as it continues through the season!

Go Blue!

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