Senior gymnast competes through injury-plagued years with family support

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 24, 2010

Expectations have always been high for senior captain Kelsey Knutson — she was raised that way — but after being hampered with injuries in her first three years at Michigan, each performance after has been a blessing.

Right now, the three-time Iowa high school “Gymnast of the Year” is healthy — and taking full advantage of that freedom.

Against No. 5 Utah on Feb. 19, she posted a season-high score of 9.875 on the beam to win her fourth title of the season, leading then-No. 16 Michigan to an upset victory.

“She has been a rock for us on beam all year long,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said after the win. “The ironic thing is that she had struggled on the beam all during the fall, and she really kind of put it together right before the season.”

Knutson recalled the difficulties and the improvement that followed.

“Bev even joked to me, asking if I knew that I was ranked eighth in the country (on beam),” Knutson said. “She asked, ‘Would you have thought you would have been ranked that high in November?’ I just laughed. I was still struggling in the fall, trying to get consistent with my routine.”

Going Blue

It all started with a little girl, a leotard and a passion for gymnastics.

Hailing from Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University, Knutson grew up watching gymnastics nearby, and her journey began very early in life.

At the age of six, she started attending the Cardinal Gymnastics Academy, and she was hooked.

“In a very short time, we started going there five days a week, an hour-and-a-half, one way,” her father, Dan, said. “So I drove two days and Carol (her mother) drove three.”

From that experience, Knutson came into contact with the current coaches of No. 1 Oklahoma and Iowa State. Because of those connections, choosing to attend the University of Michigan was difficult.

But after visiting Ann Arbor, Knutson was ready to make a decision to become a Wolverine, and she hasn't regretted it since.

“I think my parents were a little bit surprised when I chose Michigan, because it was a little out of my comfort zone,” Knutson said.

Slips and Falls on the Beam

As soon as Kelsey joined the team, she was placed on the beam lineup with high hopes of improving the team’s overall consistency, but immediately, injuries began to wear on her body.

She came to Ann Arbor with ailing knees, but her grim outlook worsened once a wrist injury required minor surgery, and back problems plagued her as well.

But in her first performance as a freshman, a day before her 19th birthday, Kelsey’s hit a team-high 9.875 routine on the beam to take third out of 30 gymnasts, an impressive debut.

At the end of the 2007 season, Knutson needed reconstructive surgery on one knee, and after a successful sophomore campaign — being named to the All-Big Ten second team — she tore her ACL and MCL in warm-ups for regionals and had to undergo more surgery.

Having already undergone five gymnastic-related operations, nothing was certain, and doubts weighed heavy on her mind.

After several months of contemplation, Kelsey was determined to get back on the beam.

“I have such a strong passion for the sport of gymnastics,” Knutson said, “And being a college gymnast was something I had aspired to be all my life. I didn’t want to end my career without trying everything I could to end it on the right note.”

During her junior year, Kelsey only performed a few times, and she had to adjust and relearn her routine to adapt to her injury-riddled body.

“Gymnasts are kind of a weird breed,” her father said. “They are going to have to train and rehab anyway … if they feel strong enough they’re going to try to keep performing. As a parent, you just don’t want them to get hurt, especially if they’re already hurt.”

But this year, in her second year as a team captain, Knutson has shrugged off injuries to become the most consistent Wolverine on the balance beam.

Support on the Road

Since their daughter came to Ann Arbor, Kelsey’s parents have been fixtures in the Crisler Arena seats.

Sitting just below the press table on the west side of the floor, Dan is the first to explode from his seat after a performance to applaud the Wolverine gymnasts, and the one who ribs the judges the loudest for inconsistent scoring.

“We’ve probably missed as many meets as are on one hand in her four years,” said Carol, her mother.

Kelsey admits that when she committed to Michigan she was worried that her parents would be unable to attend her meets.

“But my big brother reassured me that if I went to Michigan they would be at every meet, not just the home ones,” Knutson said. “And they have been driving across the country to see me and support the team, from Georgia, to Penn State, and Oregon and everywhere in between.”

They haven’t missed a thing, from her first performance to her career-high 9.925 performance to upset No. 1 Georgia during her sophomore year.

Just before the Wolverines' last match, Carol was busy laying out a map plotting a trip to Penn State for yet another match — this time, it was a 14-hour drive.

“There don’t seem to be any flights into State College from Iowa,” Dan said with a laugh. “So, it looks like we’ll be taking another road-trip.”

Needless to say, when Michigan scheduled a meet at Iowa State earlier this year it was a sigh of relief, as was Kelsey’s beam title that same night.