March 23, 2010
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Freshman women's gymnast Natalie Beilstein has starred in gymnastics for a while. But it took a bigger stage -- coming to Michigan to be a student and gymnast -- to bring the best out of her.
Competing in front of larger crowds and against tough opponents are the things making Beilstein really shine, and it's producing results. Beilstein has emerged as one of the top rookies in the Big Ten Conference. She's been honored six times as Big Ten Freshman of the Week, an accolade debuted by the conference this season.
The awards are nice. But getting to perform and excite a crowd is Beilstein's real prize.
"Something comes over me when I'm out there, I just want to do whatever it takes to hear that big roar from the crowd at the end," Beilstein said. "I'm thinking the whole time about how I can get the crowd into it. That's the best.
"I'm really competitive and I love to perform. That's what drives me. I want to win and I want to have everybody watching what I do out there."
Beilstein has revealed magnetism and flair worthy of an Academy Award-winning actress. Combine that with her big talent, and every event turns into a must-see when she's up.
"I've always been that way, I think I do my best scores when the crowds are bigger and the stakes are the highest," Beilstein said. "I'm having so much fun out there."
She has earned the top spot on the floor and vault events twice during this season's meets. Beilstein is working on improving her beam and bars performances, hopefully turning herself into an all-around threat for next season.
Becoming part of Michigan's ninth-ranked program has been an easy transition, helped by a special link Beilstein shares with Michigan head coach Bev Plocki.
Both hail from the Butler, Pa., area and were coached by Steve Heasley. Plocki had Heasley as her high school coach. Beilstein was coached by Heasley, participating in the Hy-Flyers club in his Butler Gymnastics Club. He encouraged her to go to Michigan, both for the gymnastics and academics.
"I knew she would shine on that stage, I had that really strong feeling about Michigan," Heasley said. "When Bev started recruiting her, I mentioned that she was really going to like this kid. She's the real deal, a competitor. I've had good gymnasts in the past who didn't shine under the pressure. Natalie's unbelievable. That's where she does her best work. She loves what's she's doing."
"It's full circle for me," Headley added. "Natalie's doing well working with Bev. And Bev's been doing well for a long time there. I'm really proud. I knew the two would do great things together."
Jumping from prep and club gymnastics to the NCAA level can present many challenges. Some will no longer automatically be the strongest on the team. Skills and releases have to be upgraded and perfected.
Plocki feels Beilstein has responded well to collegiate competition, and has quickly improved because she is being pushed harder.
"Things you could do in club or high school, and get high scores, won't cut it here," Plocki said. "Sometimes, that's a rough adjustment. Not for Natalie. I think having so many other strong gymnasts around her pushes her to work even harder and be better. She has the support to try new things and go to new levels of skill. She is such a competitor out there. She wants to win everything.
"She's really taken to it, and you can see that by how she performs at the meets. She's working hard, and she'll get the hang of everything. I'm sure of it."
Beilstein doesn't stress before her vault and floor routines. They're second nature, flowing effortlessly. Beam and bars are another story though. Her beam skills are good enough for a spot in the Wolverines' lineup. Her bars routine is a work in progress, undergoing daily practice scrutiny.
"Arrgh, the bars, the bars, the bars," Beilstein said, shaking her head and laughing. "I am so close to getting it, but the release is still killing me. So frustrating. But I'm going to keep at it. Maybe it's going to get as easy as floor or vault. I hope. Maybe."
Beilstein is enjoying campus life, learning the important freshman lesson of time management. It's not a good day if you go to bed at 3 a.m., and then have to get going at 8 a.m. for classes or practice.
"You have to get everything done that you need to for school and the team, but you also have to take care of yourself," Beilstein said. "It's the right place for me. I'm away from home, but not so far that I don't see my family anymore."
Beilstein's parents, Mary and Joe, have attended nearly every meet this season. They, along with Heasley, made it through a major East Coast snowstorm the weekend of Feb. 5 to see the Wolverines compete at West Virginia.
Mary noticed her daughter's confidence in Morgantown. The stands were nearly empty -- maybe 50 people coming out thanks to the bad weather, but Beilstein still performed as if it was a full house.
"I really saw how happy she is. She was just glowing out there. I've never seen her that happy while competing," Mary said. "She's exactly where she's supposed to be right now. She's my baby girl, (Beilstein has four older brothers and two younger sisters), and I will admit I was a little nervous when we dropped her off at the start of school.
"Bev and (assistant coach) Shannon (Welker) were right there, and said everything would be okay, they'd take care of Natalie. And they have. Natalie's doing great. You can see it."