Brandon's Blog: The Quintessential Student-Athlete
Katie Zurales

June 3, 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.

Katie Zurales is the quintessential student-athlete. Not only did she excel in competition for our women's gymnastics team, but she also excelled in the classroom.

From 2010-13, Zurales was a two-time team captain, a seven-time NCAA All-American and this year's national runner-up on the balance beam. Individually, she was a Big Ten champion, an NCAA Regional champion and a finalist for the 2013 AAI Award, given annually to the nation's top senior gymnast.

Equally impressive is the list of her academic honors. Last week, she was awarded an NCAA postgraduate scholarship just one week after she was selected as an American Kinesiology Association (AKA) National Undergraduate Scholar. She was a multiple Academic All-Big Ten selection and was Michigan's female recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor, one of the most prestigious honors our student-athletes can obtain.

These are just a few of the honors this young woman accumulated during her time here. Yet Zurales said it was gymnastics and the University of Michigan that made her the person she is today.

"This place gave me everything," she said. "Whether it was learning how to be a leader or figuring out how to move on from hardships, it set me up well for the future."

Zurales didn't ask for anything special, but one of the biggest lessons she learned was when to ask for help. Early on in her career, she needed it. Her first lessons were in the school of hard knocks.

Following a freshman season that included a runner-up Big Ten finish on balance beam, she underwent two surgeries. The next season was spent trying to get back to that level, but Zurales found it mentally draining. She didn't know if she could handle the routines and thought her career could be over.

She went to head coach Bev Plocki and discussed her fears. She asked Coach Plocki, "What do I do now?"

Bev told her about the resources available and how they could help Katie through the tough times. She also gave her a coach's equivalent to "a kick in the pants!"

With everything that Michigan could do for her, Katie simply had to learn for herself first. She had to trust herself and her body again. She had to listen to the seniors and coaches. Only then could she make the mental and physical changes necessary to get to the next level.

Her teammates took note of the new commitment. They started to trust what she could do and started listening to what Katie had been through, the injuries and the doubts.

Those lessons in the gym also changed Zurales' outlook as a student. She decided to get even more serious with her academics and her efforts in community outreach.

Becoming a leader is a difficult journey. Zurales' early setbacks gave her a chance to learn from the hard times. It gave her the opportunity to change her outlook on life and improve in the classroom, in the gym and in the community. As a senior, she realized what selflessness really meant.

She volunteered within the U-M Health System, worked in the classroom with autistic children, and spent nine hours a week in a physical activity lab researching a project on how pre-surgery exercise affects the outcome for bladder cancer patients. Last summer, she also volunteered to take a medical mission trip to Huancayo, Peru, where she assisted in opening an HIV clinic and helped organize a small pharmacy for the village.

So much of what Katie has accomplished has been a result of her experiences with gymnastics and from her time at the University of Michigan.

After several injuries, she questioned if her body could hold out and she could finish her career as a gymnast. This challenge actually opened her eyes to an interest in medicine while giving her a plan for the future.

All those trips to the doctors led to her interest in understanding how the body worked, which in turn created her desire to pursue a career in the medical field. She will wrap up her undergraduate studies in August and will then turn her attention toward medical school. This humble young woman wants to focus on patient care, on helping others and leading them toward a better life.

This is exactly the type of life journey we relentlessly strive to develop for all our student-athletes here at the University of Michigan.

Katie Zurales is the template for success. She is the quintessential student-athlete.

We are proud to have had the privilege of having Katie as a member of our Michigan Athletics team!!

Good luck in the future, Katie! We know you will do great things and continue to make us proud.

Go Blue!

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