Shock. Disbelief. Crushing disappointment. Then-sophomore gymnast Polina Shchennikova was flooded with all of these emotions in April when doctors told her that her injuries meant she would never be able to compete again. 

“This sport was my life. It was my passion,” Shchennikova said. “And to have it end the way it did was definitely very hard —it was heartbreaking.” 

Shchennikova was left wanting to help her team in any way she could. So when she was offered a role with the Michigan women’s gymnastics team as a student assistant coach, she took the job —and ran with it. 

Since taking on the role, Shchennikova has been helping the Wolverines with choreography and music for their floor routines. She has also been assisting with coaching efforts for the uneven bars, on which she was a “world-class athlete,” according to Michigan coach Bev Plocki.

“She has done a fabulous job for us,” Plocki said. “She’s been really valuable.”

When working with athletes on floor routines, Shchennikova tries to tailor each element of the performance to the specific gymnast, focusing on how the gymnast’s body moves, how the music can tie in to a particular sequence and how the performance comes together as a whole to make the routines more personal. This attention to detail has brought new life and energy to the floor routines.

“She knows what style we like for dancing, and that’s really important because we’re able to get into it a lot more,” said junior gymnast Lexi Funk. 

The improved floor routines have already made a difference in Michigan’s scores in competitions. In their victory in an exhibition meet against Eastern, Western and Central Michigan on Sunday, the floor competition was the Wolverines’ second-strongest event of the day, with the six gymnasts who competed in the event totaling 49.025 points. 

Working with her former teammates as a coach and watching them all perform while not competing herself has been a difficult transition for Shchennikova, but coaching and choreographing has been a valuable experience.

“It’s never easy coming back to something that you love so much that was taken away from you,” Shchennikova said. “But when I got the opportunity to choreograph floor routines here, that was the most uplifting thing I could do. Since I couldn’t do gymnastics, this was the next best thing.”

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