“Can’t break steel.”
All season long, that’s what Michigan’s gymnasts have preached. Through injury, through tough competition, through controversy and a long season of twisting and turning and tumbling — you can’t break steel.
Saturday night, the culmination of that mentality was put to the test. A day of competition in the NCAA Regional Final left reigning national champion UCLA with a hefty lead and the Wolverines in second with a not-so-hefty lead over Alabama.
A quick vault rotation at the end of Saturday’s meet left Michigan waiting — waiting to see if Alabama would make a comeback on beam, waiting to see if its lead was big enough, waiting to see if SEC beam champion Lexi Graber would score a 10.000 on her best event, waiting to see if Alabama’s last-ditch effort for a trip to Fort Worth would jeopardize a potential National Championship appearance.
For anyone in maize, every second of the routine was agonizing. For the Crimson, it was gold.
Graber gave everything Alabama could have asked her for. Every turn was controlled, every toe was pointed, every connection was hit. For a team that needed a 10.000, having Graber anchor was the best possible option.
She dismounted the beam, and all eyes, Alabama and Michigan alike, were trained on the scoreboards. In neon lights, the number flashed on the screen.
The waiting game was over — Michigan was going to the NCAA Championship. Sam Roy threw her arms in the air, Emma McLean hugged Lexi Funk (and anyone else she could find) and a tearful Olivia Karas was overcome with emotion.
“It was a nail-biter. It was one of those things that you don’t know until the last score comes up,” Karas said. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect. You just don’t know with scoring, and I didn’t watch any of the routines because I was too nervous. But it was definitely one of those very raw, ‘Oh my god, we did it!’ moments, and you don’t get those a lot in life.”
Michigan’s final score of 197.275, a thread above Alabama’s 197.225, was built up through an evening of heavy scoring and intense competition. The all-around left Karas and Natalie Wojcik tied with Nebraska’s Sienna Crouse at second with identical scores of 39.475, which would have topped the charts if the Bruins’ Kyla Ross wasn’t Kyla Ross.
But she was, and she swept the beam and bars rotations with a 10.000 in each, along with a 9.950 to tie teammate Katelyn Ohashi for floor. (If you know anything about collegiate gymnastics, it’s probably Ohashi’s Michael Jackson-themed floor routine that ended with a dip into the splits after her last tumbling pass. If you want to watch something and then question whether what you just saw was even humanly possible, that performance is what you’re looking for.)
UCLA rounded out the top-three on floor with Gracie Kramer, and if you haven’t seen a Gracie Kramer floor routine, it’s a completely different breed of energetic, passionate gymnastics. The Bruins stacked the event, and with top placers in every other rotation, they built a first-place finish early on that no team could replicate.
That left three teams bidding over one ticket to Fort Worth. It was going to be tough, a complete battle, for any of the three to earn it over the others.
Cue the motto: “Can’t break steel.”
After Kramer came three Wolverines in a nine-way tie for fourth on the floor — McLean, Karas and Abby Brenner. No Michigan gymnast took an individual title from the event like Ross did for the Bruins, but each placed high enough to rack up points for a tiny, gutsy lead over Alabama.
Wojcik did her part, leading the Wolverines on beam and barely topping Karas’ 9.900 to be the lead scorer for Michigan in the event. Lauren Farley dominated the bars for the Wolverines, earning a 9.875, while three gymnasts — McLean, Brenner and Anne Maxim — all earned a team-high 9.850 on vault.
Individually, there were no titles. But that’s not what the NCAA Regional Final meant to Michigan.
“It’s incredible,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “This team has been through a lot, and they say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger and that’s sort of the motto this team has taken. ‘Can’t break steel.’
“I’m just so incredibly proud of them, just really staying together as a team. And people say this is an individual sport. It’s not. We succeeded because we have stayed together as a team, and when there’s one blip on the screen, everyone else steps up and has that person’s back. We’ve been doing that all season long, and last night and tonight.”
UCLA punched its ticket early, by no surprise. For the Wolverines, it took a little bit longer, a little more waiting.
But when the moment came to punch that second ticket to Fort Worth, they’d put in the work. They earned their spot as one of eight teams left in the nation to compete next Friday, collectively, as a whole, together.
“Can’t break steel.”
Byler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Venmo at @laneygby. Please visit White Pigeon, Michigan.