As Abby Heiskell mounted the balance beam, fellow junior Natalie Wojcik’s 9.9875 was announced. In the final rotation of the 2021 National Championship, the pressure of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team’s first national championship rested on Heiskell’s shoulders.
And she thrived.
She completed a cat leap with impressive amplitude, connecting into a side aerial on her first pass. In the middle of the beam, Heiskell jumped into the splits, rotating ninety degrees on the landing for another split jump. She waved her arms and progressed towards the end of the beam, then Heiskell flipped backward and completed her acrobatic series. Each of her movements consisted of good form, straight legs, and hardly any wobbles.
As Heiskell raised her arms for her final pass across the beam, Oklahoma’s final score from the floor exercise came in — a 9.9375 — that dropped the Wolverines into second place, the first time Michigan trailed during the meet. Heiskell needed at least a 9.850 to secure the National Championship for the Wolverines.
She hit a roundoff into a backward-facing spinning dismount, rotating 540 degrees and landing after a tiny hop forward with her arms raised high.
Heiskell jumped into the air, and Michigan fans at Dickies Arena rose to their feet cheering.
She ran down the steps from the elevated beam platform and was swarmed with hugs from her teammates and coaches. The Wolverines clapped and pointed at their fans, and then they grew quiet.
Holding each other tight, the Wolverines waited for the final score — would Heiskell’s routine be enough to win Michigan’s first National Championship?
As individual judges’ scores were flipped over, the Wolverines screamed and jumped in the air. Still waiting for the final announcement, they grew tense once again and grabbed each other’s arms and hands tight, shaking with anticipation.
The score came in, and Michigan erupted in cheers. As the Wolverines were presented with the trophy, they jumped and chanted. Heiskell had brought it all home with her routine.
Heiskell’s name will go down in history after her 9.925 title-clinching routine that was the gymnastics equivalent of a buzzer-beater half court shot.
But she is so much more than that one moment.
When fans think of the stars of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team over the last four seasons, the names that come to mind are American Athletic Incorporated (AAI) award winner Wojcik or 2022 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and Regional Gymnast of the Year Sierra Brooks.
The key athlete that many people forget about is Heiskell, whose journey to the top took many stops.
Heiskell wasn’t always a star for the Wolverines, making her collegiate debut halfway through her freshman season after recovering from a torn Achilles tendon during her senior year of high school.
As the season progressed, she nailed more and more routines, and she only got better. All three of her season highs came at the Missouri Quad Meet, the last meet of the regular season.
Heiskell had a regular role by the end of her freshman year, and even competed on vault and bars at the NCAA National Semifinal — scoring a 9.8375 and 9.800, respectively.
Still, Heiskell’s freshman year paled in comparison to Wojcik’s season, which culminated in an individual National Championship on the balance beam. Hiding in the backdrop sat Heiskell and her consistent progression.
“Her entire team and coaching staff had so much confidence in her,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “She just really needed to start trusting and believing in that, open up and let herself do what she was capable of doing.”
That pairing of trust and confidence mattered not just because Heiskell was facing the rigors of college athletics — she was also coming back from that Achilles injury. It takes a lot of repetition for a gymnast to regain trust in their body that the injury won’t happen again. In order for Heiskell’s scores to reflect the gymnast her coaches and teammates knew she could be, her confidence needed to increase.
And as she competed away from the spotlight, that belief in herself started to build.
Heiskell’s hard work and that increased confidence after her injury began to show in her sophomore season — before it was interrupted by COVID-19.
She competed on the balance beam for the first time in the season opener. Heiskell earned three event titles on the year and scored a 9.900 or better on two vaults and one beam routine during the season. Her scores increased practically every meet, culminating in new career highs at the Elevate the Stage competition with 9.925s on vault and beam.
Heiskell won Michigan’s Most Improved Award that season, and the growth she showed only foreshadowed what was to come.
Plocki often referred to Heiskell as her “secret weapon” — the athlete that she knew would step up for the team on the biggest stage. Little did she know what Heiskell would do with a National Championship on the line.
In her junior season, Heiskell was exactly the secret weapon that the Wolverines needed.
She nailed 21 routines with a score of at least 9.900 — increasing her career total sevenfold. Her regular season performance earned her a first team All-Big Ten nomination, and her Big Ten Championship scores placed her on the All-Big Ten Championship team.
For the first time in her career, Heiskell was recognized as a regular season WCGA All-American, with the accolade recognizing her impressive and consistent performances on vault throughout the year.
Her improvement over the course of the year set Heiskell up to compete in high-pressure events in an NCAA Regional.
“In her junior year, she stepped into all-around for the first time, and really helped us at NCAAs,” Brooks said after the 2022 Big Ten Championships.
At the Regional Second Round, Heiskell shared the floor exercise event title with a career-high 9.950, sending the Wolverines into a tough regional final.
In that meet, Heiskell came to play, scoring a 9.950 on bars and a 9.900 on the floor to vault Michigan to the NCAA Semifinal in Fort Worth.
But her performances were only building.
In the National Semifinal, Heiskell started off the Wolverines with a strong performance on beam in the anchor position. Her 1.5 twist and near-stuck landing scored a 9.900. She soon followed that up with a 9.9375 on floor routine, complete with a stuck landing on her back 1.5 twist to a front layout on her second pass. Her scores combined for a 39.5875 in the all-around, fourth-best in the session.
Heiskell’s performance that day boosted Michigan to the National Final meet for the first time since 2001. At that point in time, only six schools had ever won a national championship in women’s gymnastics, and Michigan hadn’t taken home a national title as a school in any sport since 2014.
But the Wolverines wanted more than just a top-four finish.
Heiskell scored a 9.9125 on floor to help Michigan lead the pack by 0.05 headed into the second rotation.
Heiskell was in the leadoff position on the vault in the second rotation and stuck her landing on a Yurchenko 1.5. Her 9.975 — which garnered 10s from half of the judges — boosted the Wolverines to a championship meet-best 49.650 team score on the event.
But the underlying meaning of those towering scores mattered more. Her 9.9125 on bars kept Michigan in a secure position headed into the final rotation on the balance beam. The first three Wolverines posted lower than usual scores, and the race for first place tightened as Oklahoma scored 9.8-range routines on the floor. Score-for-score, the meet got closer and closer. Brooks earned a 9.9625 in the fourth slot of the rotation, followed by Wojcik’s 9.9875 — the highest score of the day on the event. Even so, Michigan and the Sooners drew into a dead heat.
As Heiskell completed her first pass on the beam, the final score for Oklahoma was announced, and Michigan trailed for the first time of the entire meet. Down by 0.0875, the Wolverines needed Heiskell to score at least a 9.850 to win the championship.
And she did.
“She did not win a national championship by herself, but being the routine that clinched that championship for us is something that I think every athlete would love to be able to say as part of their career… and Abby will,” Plocki said. “She was just so in the zone, so focused, so confident. She has said several times that it just didn’t even really enter her mind before she got up there that there was any chance that she would fail.”
In that routine, Heiskell was the very definition of confidence: knowing the outcome before she began.
The unwavering belief that she would hit that routine demonstrated the growth Heiskell had between her freshman and junior year.
“She just really grew personally, matured and got even more determined and focused in her gymnastics,” Plocki said.
Her 2021 season earned her the Team Most Improved Award for the second time in her career. It is hard to think of a turnaround for another athlete that would even compare to Heiskell’s. She scored above a 9.900 three times in her career prior to the season in which she accomplished that feat four times in the National Championship alone.
But still, the 2021 National Championship only foreshadowed the incredible season that was to come for Heiskell in her senior year as a Wolverine. Named a team captain, Heiskell was a leader on and off the mat for Michigan.
“She has the respect of her team, is very inclusive and is a great leader,” Plocki said. “She holds the team accountable, but at the same time keeps pulling people together and keeps everybody moving in a common direction.”
Any casual fan can watch the Wolverines compete and see Heiskell’s leadership. Her double-fist pumps after every routine, loud cheering for her teammates and energy are on full display.
Heiskell isn’t only energetic during meets — she brings that fire during practice as well.
“She can be very fierce when she needs to be, but she can also flip a switch and be so lighthearted and so fun,” Plocki said. “Abby makes the journey for our entire team fun and enjoyable. That’s a special characteristic.”
Beginning the season against Georgia with a 9.900 event title on vault, Heiskell showed her improvement wasn’t done.
Meet by meet, she consistently scored in the 9.900-range across all four events. She stuck her landings, executed her acrobatic series and was a steady force for a dominant team.
Heiskell’s first career perfect 10 came on vault at the Rutgers tri-meet in a rotation that set a program record at 49.875, the second-highest vault team score in NCAA history. She was the third Wolverine to compete on vault in the rotation, following junior Gabby Wilson’s 10 on floor and sophomore Reyna Guggino and Wojcik’s 10s on vault. Heiskell knew as soon as she stuck her landing that she had scored a 10, and she jumped into the air pumping her fists. Her coaches and teammates swarmed her with hugs and cheers, and they erupted in joy when the score was announced.
Heiskell closed out the regular season with first team All-Big Ten honors, in addition to two WCGA second team All-American honors in the all-around and on the uneven bars.
Brooks winning Big Ten Gymnast of the Year or Wojcik being on the short list to win the AAI award may have been the main stories headed into the Big Ten Championship, but Heiskell was the real story at that meet. Determined to bring the Big Ten Championship trophy back to Ann Arbor after barely losing it to Minnesota in 2021, Heiskell had one of the best meets of her collegiate career.
Her 9.85 on the balance beam helped Michigan to a strong start, and her performance only escalated from there.
Heiskell scored a 9.950 in each of the next three events to win the all-around, uneven bars and floor exercise individual titles. Her 39.700 overall score made her the 10th Wolverine to win the Big Ten individual all-around championship — and the first since 2019.
“If you asked her (in) her underclassman years (if she would win an individual title), I don’t think that she would have thought that,” Brooks said after the 2022 Big Ten Championships.
But Heiskell gave it her all, as she always did for her team, and the scores showed it.
“I just love seeing Abby Heiskell, as a senior, really getting the accolades that she deserves,” Plocki said after the 2022 Big Ten Championships. “It’s hard to be in Sierra and Natalie’s shadow all the time, so it’s exciting for her to step up and win the all-around.”
When the final scores and all-around champion were announced, it was Heiskell lifted up on her teammates’ shoulders. The chants of “Heisky! Heisky! Heisky!” were audible through the television, and the whole world caught a glimpse of the star that is Abby Heiskell.
Heiskell continued to shine at the NCAA Regionals. Tied with UCLA headed into the final rotation on uneven bars, Michigan needed a gymnast to step up and carry its momentum over from the vault.
And Heiskell did.
In the leadoff position, she had the highest score of the event for the Wolverines — an title-sharing 9.950 — to secure a first-place finish at the Regional and send her team to the National Semifinal.
Throughout her career, Heiskell turned her confidence and improvement into clutch performances for her team whenever they needed it the most. Even in a disappointing final meet, she stepped up and delivered the scores Michigan needed to have a shot at making the National Final on every event — her lowest score of the day was a 9.8625 on vault, with each other score being a 9.900 or above.
Her success in her final season as a Wolverine finally placed her in the same standing as Brooks and Wojcik: they all shared Co-MVP honors.
Heiskell finished her career as a member of what is arguably the best senior class in program history — one that helped break every program record in the books and sold out Crisler. Above all, she will forever be remembered by fans, friends and teammates as the one who nailed the final routine to bring Michigan its first National Championship.
Her 51 total scores of 9.900 or above and 14 event titles across four events are impressive in and of themselves. But for all but three of each to come in her final two seasons speaks volumes about the immense energy, spirit and hard work she brought to the Michigan women’s gymnastics team.
Plocki, along with many fans, hopes that Heiskell will return for one last season, but even if she does not elect to use her final year of eligibility from the COVID year, she has left a definitive mark on the program.
Plocki put it best:
“I would say she’s no secret anymore.”