David Chan: The Accidental All-American

Jan. 6, 2010

Now a senior co-captain, David Chan had no idea what Michigan gymnastics had in store for him.

By Joanne C. Gerstner

Most college coaches invest months and years in recruiting a special athlete. They hunt high and low looking for that important prospect, somebody who can succeed in school and varsity sports.

Michigan gymnastics coach Kurt Golder wishes he could spin a dramatic tale about how hard he worked to find Wolverine senior co-captain David Chan. But Golder is happily honest, acknowledging the incredible chain of events that brought Chan from Asia to Michigan had nothing to do with his recruiting prowess.

Chan, a native of Singapore, had attended boarding school in Australia since the age of 12. After graduating from high school in Perth in 2003, he returned to Singapore for the mandatory three years of military service. He had been a successful gymnast during his school days but stopped training during his stint. Chan knew he wanted to come to the United States for university after he finished the military obligation. So he began researching where he should go to college, knowing he wanted to study aerospace engineering somewhere in North America. A web search informed him that the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor had one of the best engineering programs in the United States.

He applied to Michigan, without ever visiting the campus. His first days in North America came in the fall of 2006, when he arrived in Ann Arbor for orientation. Gymnastics was the furthest thing from his mind: he just wanted to fit into a new place very far from home.

"It was a little intimidating at first, because there was a lot to adjust to," Chan said. "I felt I had made a good choice pretty quickly, it was just a matter of getting things going for me."

Chan's acclimation to North America and university life was going well. He became friends with some people who knew members of the Michigan women's gymnastics team. Chan was intrigued, as gymnastics was still something he loved. He didn't know about Michigan's varsity gymnastics program, much less the level of competition at the Big Ten and NCAA.

He just wanted to do a few tricks on the pommel horse or a few flips to relieve school stress and have fun. Chan wondered if Michigan had some type of open gym or a club team. So he walked into the gymnastics practice facility, and met Golder.

"He was a nice kid, said he wanted to drop in and work out a bit, but I had to set him straight -- that's not how it works," Golder said, adding a laugh. "If you're working out here, you're on the gymnastics team. We're not a drop-in kind of club. We're a serious NCAA varsity program that trains on a schedule."

Chan was still interested, after seeing the blue expanse of the padded floor and the equipment in the Coliseum. Golder and Chan chatted a bit, with the coach trying to stealthily determine how good this freshman from another country could be. Chan was sent off for a tryout with an assistant coach, and Golder figured that would be the end of things.

"I got a call about 10 minutes into the tryout, and I was told that this kid was really, really good," Golder said. "I have to say I was surprised. All-American-types of gymnasts just don't walk into your office off the street.

"On that one day, David walked in. And I guess the rest is history. A pretty darned good history if you ask me."

Chan has become an important part of Michigan's gymnastics team, which is regarded as one of the best in the NCAA. The Wolverines were the 2009 co-Big Ten champions, and finished as NCAA runner-up. This season, Michigan is ranked No. 4 in the nation in the preseason poll and No. 1 in the Big Ten preseason poll.

Chan's story has worked out to be a bit of a fairy tale at Michigan, where he became an All-American as a freshman, finishing seventh in vault at the NCAA Individual Finals. He still laughs when remembering how Golder rushed up to him at the finals, delivering the good news.

"Coach was so happy, he hugged me and slapped me on the back and said, `You're an All-American now!", Chan recalled. "I figured that had to be something good, but I didn't know what an All-American was. I had to ask him to explain it to me."

Chan certainly knows now what the different honors mean, as he's collected a slew of them. He's been an Academic All-Big Ten honoree, three-time winner of Michigan's Athletic Academic Achievement award, and a two-time All-American.

He's also grown to love the competition of being in the Big Ten and NCAA.

"It's so different here, you really can't know how intense things are in competition at this level until you get to experience it," Chan, 24, said. "You get a little nervous, a few chills, you feel the energy out there. I love it. It's so much fun.

"I want to finish my career well, giving it my all this season. I think we can really do some great things as a team."

Chan expects to graduate this spring, receiving his degree in aerospace engineering. He's debating sticking with gymnastics, perhaps training to try to represent Singapore in the 2012 London Olympics.

But he's not looking that far ahead yet.

Golder would like to see Chan finish his Michigan career with a national championship, completing the most improbable of journeys in high style.

"So many great, unexpected and unplanned things have happened with David, why stop now?" Golder said. "I think last season showed this team and David what they could become with hard work. There is no reason to think their dedication won't pay off again this season."