Now or Never for Wolverines, Senior Class
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MGOBLUE

April 17, 2014

By Brad Rudner (brudner@umich.edu)

Two days ago, six women walked off the floor at the Donald R. Shepherd Gymnastics Training Center for the final time as collegiate athletes, their last practice behind them.

Collectively, they're almost ready to turn the page and begin the next chapters of their lives. For some, it's graduate school. For others, it's full-time jobs. Whatever path they take, these six are all leaving behind a sport that they've dedicated years to perfecting.

This weekend at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala., six magnificent careers will come to an end. After 18 years, Joanna Sampson can think of no better way to go out.

"It makes everything that you've gone through before worth it," she said. "All those times you competed as an individual in club. All those times you wanted to quit and never do it again. To get this far with these girls is the most important thing. It's the only way we could end it."

Prior to this practice, head coach Bev Plocki made sure her team knew that any tears were strictly forbidden until afterwards. The meet was three days away. There was still work to be done.

The team was huddled in their usual corner of the floor, awaiting final word on what the day's assignments would be. Opposite them, the windows facing the tennis courts were marked with letters that would eventually spell a phrase. In what has become tradition on the final practices of the season, each gymnast earned one letter for each stuck landing throughout the day. Last year, "The Victors" were spelled out over the course of an entire week. Here, they only had two days.

As Plocki walked over, she asked, "Ready for our last practice?"

For the next two-plus hours, it was business as usual. The aches and pains hurt a little more this time of year, so Plocki instructed her team to take these remaining days one at a time, meeting one goal at a time. Today was about getting through practice with the fewest number of routines at the highest quality. But she also knew of the day's importance. Having been through this 24 times before, she reminded her team -- particularly the underclassmen -- to savor each moment, because one day, it'll be over. All they had to do was ask their seniors how fast it went for them.

Before the warm-up began, senior Reema Zakharia fell to the floor and stretched out her arms, almost as if she was hugging it. Though she couldn't take it with her, she was going to cherish every last minute of this day, just like her coach wants her to.

"That's my event, my home" she said. "At practice, we live routine to routine. I wanted to take a good one with me to the national championships."

If Sampson is the star of the senior class, Zakharia is almost certainly the spark. Nobody on the team enjoys performing in front of a crowd as much as she does. If you've witnessed a meet at Crisler Center over the last four years, then you know Zakharia treats every one of her floor exercise routines like it's her own personal dance party. She is but one component, for a deeper look into this senior class reveals six completely different personalities that make up the heart and soul of Team 38.

There's Teresa Arthur, who, despite never cracking any lineups, always made sure that her words of encouragement and leadership never fall on deaf ears. There's Stephanie Colbert, a once soft-spoken gymnast whose untimely injury forced her to stand off the mat as a coach instead of on it as an athlete in her final season. There's Shelby Gies, one of the calmest, coolest and most collected gymnasts that you'll find in the sport's most challenging events. There's Natalie Beilstein, the super senior and transplanted member of this class who is saving her best performances for last.

And then there's the aforementioned Sampson, whose four-year trajectory at Michigan resembles somewhat of a reformation project. As a freshman, she was stubborn and reserved. She rarely smiled, as if doing gymnastics was a chore instead of a hobby. The love was no longer there.

It wasn't lost on her coach. Throughout the season, Plocki had several conversations with Sampson about change, about how she was perceived by her teammates. Trying to shed the stubbornness, Sampson listened. Eventually.

"Coming into sophomore year, I tried to change my attitude about everything," she said. "Between leaving my club and coming to Michigan, I realized that I didn't like the sport anymore. I was bitter. But after being here for a year, I realized how much better it was."

She knew she had to find that love again, but it didn't happen overnight. A more expanded role awaited her as a sophomore, but the team was beset by injuries and lack of depth, stumbling to a fourth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships and failing to qualify as a team for the NCAA Championships.

While her teammates stayed back in Ann Arbor, their seasons now concluded, Sampson marched on as an individual event qualifier. Together with then-teammate Katie Zurales, the two made it a point to represent the Maize and Blue as best they could by themselves. While Zurales was lucky enough to perform on all four events as an all-arounder, Sampson was only there for vault.

One vault. Seven seconds. That was it.

While it's an experience she never wanted to do again, Sampson found the silver lining.

"Being individuals, it really made us realize how important our team really was," Sampson said. "You get used to being at competitions like this with your team behind you. Having to do it by yourself like you did as a club gymnast just wasn't fun."

Somewhere between that day and the start of her junior season, the old Sampson came back and ever since then, few gymnasts have accomplished more. Over the last two years, she has won two Big Ten individual titles (and two team titles), two NCAA Regional titles (two more team titles) and an individual national title (floor exercise in 2013). And that's not even mentioning all the weekly, postseason and many other awards she's won.

All of it, however, would be traded in for a shot at something bigger for the team. Prior to practice, Sampson looks up at the 20 Big Ten championship banners hanging from the ceiling. Sometime this summer, one more will be added with the words, "2014 Big Ten Champions."

To her left lies a display with all the program's champions. Her name is already etched into that wall in more than one place. She admits it's strange to see.

"You look at the names up there -- Ray, Botterman, Wymer. They were all such amazing gymnasts," she said. "To have my name next to theirs, I still can't quite grasp it."

There's no athlete in the gym that is harder on her performances than Sampson. Ten days prior at the NCAA Regional Championships in Athens, Ga., she slogged through her worst meet of the season, scoring season lows in two events (uneven bars, balance beam) and the all-around and her second-lowest in a third (vault). Even with all of that, she still won the individual championship on floor exercise to give her four career NCAA Regional titles, one for each of her years at Michigan.

On the outside, Sampson was happy that her team won. Their season would continue. On the inside, though, her individual performances and missed opportunities slowly ate away at her.

Her performance on uneven bars was particularly uncharacteristic. She had won the Big Ten title on the same event two weeks prior to that and has been one of the team's highest scorers all season, posting five scores of 9.900 or better. She hadn't fallen on any event all season until that day.

It was a simple mistake. If she goes to release a split-second earlier, it's a hit, but in this case, the fall increased the pressure for the final two competitors in the rotation in arguably the biggest pressure-cooker meet of the season. It's those exact types of scenarios that are practiced nearly every day, and it starts over again each fall as trust is reconstructed with each new team.

Sampson and Zakharia

During each preseason, Plocki sets aside one weekend for team bonding. In previous years, those activities have centered on building trust and getting to know each teammate better. There was none of that this year.

Instead, Plocki brought in retired U.S. Navy SEAL Thad Turner and sport psychologist Tony Onorato to put the team through "The Program, " a series of exercises aimed at pushing athletes to their physical limits while also testing their mental toughness. Knowing several other teams on campus had done the same thing with amazing results, Plocki jumped at the opportunity.

Over the better part of one full day, Turner took each athlete to their physical limit and then some. At the end, during the reflection period, there wasn't one person who didn't find the experience to be the most rewarding they had ever done.

"It was more than talking the talk. It was walking the walk," Zakharia said. "We were put in specific situations where we had to step up. There was no talking."

"We were going to do whatever it took to pick anybody up and help them keep going," Sampson added. "Nobody was going to be left behind."

For Plocki and the coaching staff, the main goal of the exercises was to get the team to believe that they were capable of more in the toughest of times.

"If athletics were easy, if winning championships were easy, everyone would do it," Plocki said. "Being able to get through the difficult times is what defines championship teams."

They didn't know it then, but those experiences would come in handy throughout the season. After putting up the second-highest score in the history of the program on March 7 against perennial powers UCLA and Utah, the team had a chance to win a Big Ten regular-season title outright in their home arena and on national television at the Big Ten Quad. Through two events, U-M was cruising, but the lead turned into a deficit after Gies and Austin Sheppard each fell twice on the balance beam. The mistakes proved to be too much, and Michigan finished third.

There was no Big Ten title. What's worse, the finish dropped the Wolverines -- who were still the No. 1-ranked team in the Big Ten -- to the afternoon session for the official championships the following week at Penn State and with it, the sport's harsh stigma that no team can win a championship out of the afternoon.

Observers of the sport said that it couldn't be done, that it was impossible, improbable or both. Most were writing this team off before the competition even began. But inside the walls of the training center, the chip on the shoulder only grew larger, as each gymnast itched for the chance to get back out onto the floor and prove everybody wrong.

"It was one of the worst feelings," Gies said. "In the back of your mind, so many people say things like that, you almost start to believe it. When we got to practice that Monday, Bev's talk to us was so encouraging. She believed we could win. It just gave us all the motivation we needed for the entire week. Going into that weekend, everybody had fire in their eyes."

So when they stepped onto the Rec Hall floor that following Saturday, any fan in attendance could see that this was a different team. They were confident, refreshed and perhaps best of all, angry.

What transpired was a truly dominating performance. From the team's record-setting floor exercise rotation (49.700) to Sampson's pair of individual titles to a six-for-six rotation on the balance beam, the Wolverines won the session by more than a full point with a score of 197.550, the team's third-highest score in the history of the Big Ten Championships.

The bar was set, and it was set high. The remaining four teams -- two-time defending champion Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and host Penn State -- knew what needed to be done. All Michigan could do was sit in the stands and watch, hoping that their score would hold up.

At the end of the two hours, nervousness turned into joy, as the score held up by a comfortable six-tenth margin. There was laughing. There was crying. And then there was the singing of "The Victors" on top of the podium. For the first time since their freshman season, Michigan was Big Ten champion once again.

"You sit there and know that everything that's happening is completely beyond your control," Zakharia said. "We were satisfied with what we did. If one of those teams had beaten that score, then they would have deserved it, and we would have commended them. We didn't leave anything in the tank that day."

Five days went by until adversity struck again, as Sheppard fractured her ankle in practice, an injury that ended her season prematurely. With the year's most important meet (NCAA Regionals) coming up in mere days, the team was left with a void that couldn't be filled by one person, especially on vault, where Sheppard was tied for second in the nation. Instead, Plocki implored her gymnasts to collectively get just a little bit better in one area, whether that meant hitting a cleaner handstand or eliminating a wobble on the balance beam.

A top-two finish would ensure qualification to the NCAA Championships but finishing second wasn't on anybody's mind. They had one goal -- to win. Thanks to a strong start on floor exercise (49.575) and some clutch performances from the underclassmen, the Wolverines accomplished their goal going away, winning the meet by a four tenths-of-a-point and punching their ticket to Birmingham.

One of those clutch performers was Lindsay Williams, a former walk-on who has been thrust into action this postseason. With Sheppard incapable of performing, Williams was inserted into the uneven bars lineup for only the third time all year. Even with the pressure on after Sampson's fall earlier in the order, Williams managed to hit the best routine of her career and save the rotation for her team. Her reward? A gigantic bear hug from a teary-eyed Sampson upon returning to the corral.

"That hug had to have lasted for five minutes," Williams said. "In that moment, you see how much pressure she puts on herself. She knew we had her back. She doesn't need to be perfect every time."

If you take Plocki's approach and view the season as a timeline of met goals, this team has accomplished nearly all of them, but there's still one left that hasn't been met yet -- the Super Six. Since 2005, Michigan has been back to the sport's biggest stage only once -- 2011, when these seniors were only freshmen.

As this group of Wolverines heads into tomorrow's semifinal (Friday, April 18), the naysayers might return. They might be counted out again. That's okay for Sampson, because what's silencing the critics one more time?

"Personally, if someone tells me that I can't do something, I'm going to do whatever it takes to prove to you that I can," she said. "This team is very driven by those sorts of things. We want to stand out. We want to prove that we can hang with the best teams in the country, and I think we've proven that all season."

As the clock counted down toward the end of practice two days ago, only two tiles remained. It was almost fitting that Williams was the one to put them up after crushing a beam routine that Plocki judged at 9.95, complete with a stuck landing. If she does that tomorrow, an appearance in Sunday's individual event finals isn't out of the question, but Williams isn't even entertaining that thought.

Going over to the window, she taped up the last two and stepped back to look at the finished product. It read:

2-0-1-4 N-A-T-I-O-N-A-L C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N-S-H-I-P-S

B-A-C-K T-O S-U-P-E-R S-I-X!!

Now or never.

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