April 18, 2013
By Brad Rudner
The date was April 7, 2012. It was a night that 11 gymnasts and three coaches will remember for all the wrong reasons.
Like they've done in the previous 21 years before, the University of Michigan women's gymnastics team was competing at the NCAA Regional Championships. Like the five other regional sites across the country, six teams were at this Regional in Auburn, Ala., but only two would go on to the NCAA Championships, the ultimate destination for every collegiate gymnastics team. It's an event that Michigan expects to be at every year and for good reason, as it had qualified to nationals in 18 of 19 seasons since 1993. After this night, though, only one part of that statistic increased.
By this point in the season, Michigan had faced more than enough obstacles. The Wolverines entered the season with only 11 gymnasts on the roster and no senior class to speak of. Throw in a few season-ending injuries, and they fielded a team of seven healthy gymnasts at NCAA Regionals -- Sachi Sugiyama, Katie Zurales, Joanna Sampson, Annette Miele, Reema Zakharia, Shelby Gies and Stephanie Colbert, four of whom were all-arounders. Brittnee Martinez also competed but was hardly 100 percent, only able to go on one event (uneven bars) due to an ankle injury.
All things considered, the Wolverines had a pretty good meet. They scored a season high (196.325). They hit all their routines and didn't count a fall. Even with those positives and a performance that they deemed their best of the season, it was not enough. They came up .125 short, a slim margin in the gymnastics world.
Sitting in the team corral off floor at the end of the meet, it was if as the team collectively thought, 'This isn't where it ends."
"We had put in so much hard work and never gave up," Zurales said. "We really felt like nothing was going our way not matter what we did, but that didn't affect how we competed that night. We wanted it so badly. To come up short definitely hurt."
In a season filled with adversity, they had to endure a little more. This time, though, was harder than the others. There wasn't an injury. There wasn't a fall. There was only the painful truth that the season was over. The team's goal of making it to the NCAA Championships, despite all that adversity, was going to be left unachieved.
The pain of coming so close but still coming up short lit the proverbial spark. Eight months, however, is a long time to wait for redemption.
"I think they were angry," head coach Bev Plocki said. "Sometimes being angry and upset is a great motivator."
The season had just ended, but for this team, preparations were already underway for the next season. Assistant coach Shannon Welker, always one to incorporate quotes into his motivational messages, gave the team a powerful one heading into the offseason: "If you want something you've never gotten, you have to do something you've never done."
Changes began happening almost instantly during a time of year in which workouts are entirely voluntary. Coaches cannot require student-athletes to train or practice in the offseason, but from mid-May to mid-August, every returning member of the team popped in and out of the gym on their own time, perfecting skills and modifying routines.
However, just because it's the offseason doesn't mean training is any less difficult. Every time the going got tough, the question was always, "Are you afraid? Are you afraid of success?" Everyone asked it. The answer was always a resounding "no" and the motto "Not Afraid of Success" was born.
"We didn't want anything to hold us back," Zakharia said. "We went through enough adversity. Coming into this year, we weren't going to be afraid of anything."
Equally as important was the time each member spent in the weight room. The team's strength and conditioning coach, Lew Porchiazzo, set aside blocks of time in the Canham Natatorium weight room three days per week for gymnasts who wanted to come in and work out. Team turnout -- again voluntarily -- was both consistent and outstanding.
From Porchiazzo's standpoint, it was because of that turnout that made this offseason different than any he had in his prior three years working with the program. To craft workouts, he gathered input from the gymnasts on what they wanted to work on. Lifts focused on the lower body and upper back, two important areas of the body for gymnasts. To build up endurance, every workout finished with a circuit, an up-tempo series of exercises performed in a short amount of time. For example, a normal circuit could contain a varied number of reps for exercises like rope slams, medicine ball woodchoppers, kettlebell swings and hanging straight-leg raises, all of which had to be done in a condensed time period.
In her now 24 years as a head coach, Plocki can't remember an offseason in which her team trained harder during a time when they weren't required to.
"I thought their determination was superior to just about any other team I've ever had," Plocki said. "It's one thing to show up during the summer and do a little something-something. It's another thing to come in and train with the kind of focus and determination that this group showed."
"We were prepared to do anything to fight for a better season," Zurales added. "Everyone was extremely dedicated and wanted it so badly. We all made huge changes and pushed each other. Elite teams don't have just one or two leaders. They have a team of leaders. That's what we became. It was inspiring to see each and every person do that. That's one thing that makes our team so special."
Fast forward to September. As the team reconvened on campus for classes and the start of the preseason, one of the first organized activities scheduled was a team retreat. The entire team and coaching staff spent a weekend at a YMCA camp in Adrian with two objectives in mind: establish team goals for the season and understand what it means to be a student-athlete at Michigan. To that end, they turned to the ultimate Michigan Man, legendary football coach Bo Schembechler.
They took the book, "Bo's Lasting Lessons" and studied it as intently as any classroom text. As they flipped through the pages, they learned about Michigan's legacy and what it took to uphold it. As Gies said, "It gave us all a purpose for why we're here."
While at the retreat, the team created a road map, a series of illustrations drawn on a 10-foot piece of paper that now sticks on the mirrors adjacent to the practice floor at the Donald R. Shepherd Gymnastics Training Center. Every "stop" on the road map represents one meet of the 2013 season with one or more team goals listed next to each. For example, the goal for Feb. 16 vs. Penn State was to improve its hit and stick percentage. The team stuck 13 landings, including all six on floor. The overarching purpose was to provide the team with a more narrow focus, showing just how important it is to take everything -- and every meet -- one step at a time.
In order for Michigan to achieve the success it so desperately craved, everyone needed to buy in, but a bit of good fortune helped, too. Natalie Beilstein was back at 100 percent health after an Achilles tear sidelined her for the majority of her junior season. Briley Casanova graduated high school a full semester early, strengthening an already solid freshman class. Zurales used her experiences as captain last year to learn how to be a better leader this year.
And then there was Sampson's emergence. The junior improved her all-around scoring average by more than four tenths-of-a-point (39.448 in 2013, up from 39.032 in 2012) while winning 22 individual-event titles (out of 51 routines) and finishing first place in the all-around seven times. She was a five-time Big Ten Gymnast of the Week this season, culminating in her being named Big Ten and NCAA Northeast Region Gymnast of the Year. If there's an ace on this team, Sampson is it.
"This summer, she mentioned to me how she wanted to enjoy herself and have more fun in the gym," Gies said. "When you have more fun, it becomes easier. You see more success. That's the biggest change I've seen in her. She has been a rock for our team all year long."
Sampson and Zurales remember the end of last year in a way their teammates don't. While the rest of the team had their season end at Regionals, those two moved on to the NCAA Championships as individual qualifiers. They remember what it was like to perform without the screaming and supportive voices of their teammates in the background. It was something neither one of them wanted to go through again.
"I don't even have words because I didn't want to go through it again, and I didn't think my team deserved to go through that again, either," Zurales said. "Each and everyone one of these girls has gone through so much. We all deserved to be there."
In the grand scheme of things, Sampson and Zurales are just two pieces of a larger pie. Out of the 24 routines Michigan put out on the floor in a given meet this season, no less than 21 of them came from upperclassmen. It was essentially the same team as last year, showing that improvement was made across the board.
Rather than gradually increasing difficulty and tweaking routines in midseason, this coaching staff wanted to get off to a stronger, faster start. To do that, they also had to get off to a quicker start, implementing three in-the-gym intrasquads in the fall to generate as close to a meet atmosphere as possible. They replaced the annual Maize & Blue Intrasquad in December and instead competed against Michigan State in an exhibition meet. Once January hit and competitions began to take up the weekends, the dividends started to show, making the struggles of last season seem like a distant memory.
It worked. The end result was one of the best seasons in program history in 2013. Consider these numbers and facts:
|Overall Scoring Average
- The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country on two occasions earlier this season, the first time they've achieved top honors since 2000.
- They've scored above 197.000 on five occasions, a feat that hadn't happened since 2001.
- They won the inaugural Big Ten regular-season championship and finished with a 17-1 record in regular-season meets.
The only speed bump of the season thus far came at the Big Ten Championships on March 23 in East Lansing, where Michigan disappointingly finished second to Nebraska. Perhaps no team would have beaten the Cornhuskers the way they were hitting that evening, but the Wolverines didn't exactly help their cause. The body language told the story. They seemed tight and didn't look as clean or confident in their execution. The performance did, however, serve as a reality check, providing them an opportunity to refocus for NCAA Regionals, which was two weeks away.
Two days later, the team entered its Monday practice with a renewed energy. Maybe it was the draw for Regionals (Morgantown -- a true best-case scenario). Maybe it was the favorable rotation order (Olympic order). Whatever the case, the motivation returned. This team knew that Regionals was do-or-die time. Like it was last year, the task was simple: either finish in the top two or miss out on nationals for the second time in as many years.
For this team, that wasn't an option. Going into Morgantown, Plocki wanted the team to have more fun, which isn't easy to do in a pressure-filled environment like NCAA Regionals. Yet, the team that took the floor that night didn't look nervous or tight. It looked like a group that was competing in their own practice gym. It wasn't their best score or even best performance -- tight judging not withstanding -- but they did what they needed to do to advance, winning a Regional championship for the 10th time in program history.
This team had their sights set on Los Angeles (the location of the NCAA Championships) since the beginning of those fall workouts. Even many months out, whenever chatter of NCAAs came up in the gym or in the training room, the sentence always started with "when", never "if." That's the ultimate confidence. They spoke as if they were going to make it and here they are.
"Last year, making it to NCAAs was the ultimate goal," Zurales said. "This year, it was just another stop on the road. We expected to be there."
Since the NCAA officially recognized women's gymnastics as a sport in 1982, only four teams have ever won the national championship (Alabama, Georgia, UCLA, Utah) and three of them are in Michigan's semifinals session. For the Wolverines to make it to the Super Six for a shot at becoming the fifth team, they'll need to finish in the top three on Friday, a task that won't be easy. But despite the pedigrees of the some of the other programs, expect to see a loose, fun-loving and, of course, confident bunch of gymnasts out on the Pauley Pavilion floor.
They're "Not Afraid of Success." They're also not afraid of anyone.
"There's no point in going back now," Sugiyama said. "We're there. Making Super Six? That's our goal now."
Regardless of the outcome this weekend, this group of women showed that not even a single subpar season can derail a mighty program. And that coveted national championship? You can bet it's on their minds now.
"Michigan has always been striving for a national championship in women's gymnastics," Sampson said. "It would be amazing to be a part of that, being a part of the first team and knowing that everyone on this current team had something to do with it."