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Battle-tested gymnastics team readies for national title run

McKenzie Berenzin/Daily
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By Alex Taylor, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 17, 2013

Adding to the number of nationally ranked Michigan athletic teams, the Michigan men’s gymnastics team opens the season as the No. 2 team in the country.

The Wolverines, coming off a sixth-place finish at the national championships last year, return all members from last year’s team. This experience, coupled with the team’s talents, has Michigan looking to accomplish something special this year.

“I think this is a very talented team, it’s a very deep team,” said Michigan coach Kurt Golder. "We don’t have it together completely right now because I’m one who tends to emphasize really being strong at the end for the NCAA championship. I think it’s a team that in the end will do very well.”

In his 17 years at the helm of the program, Golder has guided the Wolverines to two national championships — the most recent one being in 2010. This year, Golder will look to junior Sam Mikulak, redshirt senior Syque Caesar and sophomore Stacey Ervin to help him capture his third national title.

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Coming off a year highlighted by representing the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Mikulak will look to add more accolades to his already impressive résumé, which includes winning the all-around competition in 2011 and finishing runner-up in 2012. He also won last year's NCAA high-bar championship. Besides being the first American gymnast in Michigan’s history to compete in Olympics, Mikulak also had a skill named after him added to the code of points on pommel horse last summer.

Mikulak has been hampered by injuries this fall — he hurt his left ankle in the summer and then he tore his left calf muscle upon his return from the ankle injury. He has only recently been cleared to start running and some light jumping and is expected to be able to start his dismounts by next week.

“I’m hopeful that we can have him in the line-up on floor and vault by our last dual meet of the season,” Golder said. “The training staff has indicated that it might happen before that, but we will have to see.”

Caesar was another Wolverine who competed in the Olympics, representing Bangladesh. Caesar made history in 2012 when he became the first Bangladeshi athlete to record a gold medal at the fourth Central South Asian Artistic Gymnastic Championships. A member of the 2010 national-championship team, Caesar is also the 2011 Big Ten parallel bar champion.

Caesar was riddled with an injury-plagued year in 2012 in which he tore his right bicep in the first dual meet of the season. This kept him out for the rest of the season. He recovered from this injury, and then eight days before the London Games he tore his left bicep. Injuries and all, Caesar still managed to complete all four of his routines on the Olympic stage, his first performance since he was injured at the dual meet in January. Caesar, a co-captain, will look to put the injuries in the past and return to his previous form.

“You talk about overcoming adversity. Handling the situation and overcoming adversity, he sets a good example,” Golder said. “He’s a good captain.”

Ervin will look to continue the success he had during his freshman campaign. In 2012, Ervin earned All-American honors on both vault and floor exercise. He gained these honors by finishing third and fourth on floor and vault, respectively, at the NCAA championships. The Big Ten has named Ervin to the 2013 Gymnasts to Watch List.

“The thing about Stacey was as a freshman when we got to the big meets he got bigger,” Golder said. “He was better at the Big Tens than he was during the dual-meet season, and then he was better at the NCAA championships than he was at the Big Tens. For a coach that wants to peak at the NCAA Championship, that’s the kind of guy that you want.”

In addition to these three gymnasts, Michigan will get contributions from sophomore Adrian de los Angeles — who was also named to a Big Ten’s “Gymnasts to Watch”— senior captain Rohan Sebastian and sophomore Michael Strathern.

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The Wolverines will open their season this Saturday at the Windy City Invitational in Chicago. Though it’s the first competition of the season, Michigan will not be easing into the season by any means — No. 1 Illinois, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 8 Ohio State and No. 10 Iowa, will all be in attendance.

“Illinois always comes out pretty strong at the Windy City, where we’re looking at it more like let’s see where we are at,” Golder said. “Hopefully, we will win it, but the sun doesn’t rise and set with how we finish at the Windy City.”

Regardless of the result at the Windy City Invitational, with a coach like Golder leading a group of gymnasts like Mikulak, Caesar and Ervin, the Wolverines will almost certainly be a factor come NCAA championship time.