Michigan women’s gymnastics coach Bev Plocki believes there are two core aspects central to the collegiate athletic experience:
“One part of it is winning championships, being on a team and learning about teamwork,” Plocki said. “The other part of it is learning to be humble, learning that it isn't always all about us.”
While the top-ranked Wolverines are well on their way to fulfilling Plocki’s first core aspect, Plocki’s second core aspect made itself apparent this weekend in Michigan’s meet against Ohio State (1-0-1 Big Ten, 1-0-1 overall). Michigan learned firsthand about appreciation and gained insight into the experience of living with autism.
Saturday, the Wolverines (1-0-0, 3-0-0), defeated the Buckeyes, 196.950-195.275, in front of Abby Hahn and John Leone, two individuals on the autism spectrum who have both spent significant time with members of the gymnastics team.
Hahn performed a magnificent floor routine before the meet began, and the crowd graciously applauded. After Hahn’s routine, Brian Connors, another individual with autism, sang a roaring national anthem, which was also met with cheers of approval.
The meet offered freshman Olivia Karas, as well as her teammates, a unique opportunity to bring familiarity to the public about the disorder.
“It was awesome to compete for something bigger than just Michigan, for a greater cause,” Karas said. “(It was) a great honor having the (autism) symbol on our cheeks.”
Karas lived up to her expectations. She finished with the highest all-around score in the meet and also set a career high in the uneven bars, achieving a score of 9.850.
John Leone, a college student at University of Michigan-Dearborn, has spent many hours in the gym with the Michigan team over the years, growing in comfort after each visit. Because of the amount of time he has spent with the Wolverines in the gym, the older members of the team have established an ongoing relationship with him.
Junior Nicole Artz, in her third year of taking part in Autism Awareness Meet, praised Leone and his influence on the team.
“(Leone’s) been a true inspiration and a really good friend to us,” Artz said. “(He is) a number-one Michigan supporter, (he) cares so much about us, and we love him as well.”
Artz also thrived in the meet, garnering the second best all-around score and earning the top score in the floor event with a 9.900. She also tied her season bests in both the vault and the balance beam.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum had prominent roles in Saturday’s meet, perhaps highlighting Plocki’s message that individuals with the disorder enjoy participating in the same activities as those without it.
“We want people to learn from what we’ve learned and from our experiences,” Plocki said. “When we can have Abby come out and demonstrate her ability or Brian come out and sing like he sang, (it is) hopefully changing ideas or perceptions of the people who were here at this meet.”
Plocki shared one final story about Leone and his experiences in Michigan’s team huddle after each practice.
“We put him with (the) girls around him, close to him and touching him to do a ‘Let’s Go Blue,’ ” Plocki said. “After that, he immediately ran back over to his mother, and he was like, ‘I did it! I did it!’ ”
On a day when the Wolverines showed why they are the No.1 team in the nation, it was ultimately their humility and appreciation that stood out.