At the tender age of 2 years old, Olivia Karas used to flip off her family’s couch.
In an attempt to channel their child’s energy in a more controlled, less dangerous way, Karas’ parents enrolled her in “mommy and me” gymnastics classes. At first glance, the building where the classes were held was just a run-down warehouse in Chicago. But for Karas, it’s where she began her life’s journey as one of the most accomplished athletes in college gymnastics.
Four years later at that same warehouse, one of the gymnastics coaches asked Olivia to try out for a team. Karas had a charismatic attitude and undeniable talent even at that age, and she officially made the team at the age of 6.
But after about a month, she decided she hated it and quit.
Now, as a member of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team 12 years later, Karas has garnered a long list of honors and awards, including All Big-Ten first team, Big Ten Freshman of the Year and three-time Big Ten Gymnast of the Week.
With that impressive haul, it seems unbelievable that Karas almost didn’t become a gymnast at all. After initially quitting gymnastics, Karas returned to her energetic self, so much so that her parents told her she had to do something — anything — to settle down.
“I was a crazy kid,” Karas said. “Eight months after I quit, nothing changed and I was still crazy because I had so much energy. My mom told me, ‘You have to go back, you have to do something.’ I told her, ‘I kind of want to try gymnastics again,’ so I went back and I’ve loved it ever since.”
And so she began her path toward becoming a successful college gymnast. After Karas made a trip to the national meet as an eighth-grader, she received a recruitment letter from Michigan. At the time, she felt it was too soon to be thinking about college, so Karas and her family stuck the letter in a box and left it alone.
During her sophomore year of high school, though, Karas realized she was almost late to the recruitment process. She was injured her freshman year and remained uncommitted. Gymnasts all around her were already committed, and she had almost no idea where she wanted to go. Almost.
As it turns out, that letter in a box was never forgotten.
“This was always my dream place,” Karas said. “I always wanted to come to Michigan. My friends and I, we would always watch Michigan. We never watched anyone else compete. From then on, I told myself, ‘If I go to college for gymnastics, I’m going to Michigan.’
“My parents tried to get me to branch out, but I wouldn’t have it. This was the place. I knew from the start, as soon as I walked in those doors on my first visit, this was the place. I had no interest in going anywhere else. This is perfect for me.”
Karas committed to Michigan just before her junior year and stepped on campus this past fall ready to do what she had always done since the age of 2.
Coming off of a successful high school gymnastics career, where she competed with IK Gymnastics, Karas was prepared for collegiate athletics. Competing in events like the Nastia Liukin Cup and winning vault two years in a row at the J.O. National Championships, Karas was clearly a good recruitment choice for the Wolverines.
One thing Karas didn’t anticipate was how welcoming the team would be. For her, the team has been one of the driving factors that keeps her relaxed on the floor.
Karas was one of two freshmen to join the team for the 2015-16 season, along with Emma McLean. The two immediately bonded together — at meets, they give pep talks to each other. At practice, they’re keeping each other loose. And while she doesn’t necessarily dive off her family’s couches anymore, Karas still has that energetic attitude that got her started in gymnastics in the first place, according to McLean.
“Outside of the gym, she’s just like she is in the gym,” McLean said. “She’s full of energy, very spunky. She’s like the Energizer Bunny in the commercials. She never stops.”
Some freshmen struggle to adjust in college, particularly to the demanding nature of athletics. Karas, however, apparently hasn’t had that problem. Serving multiple times as an anchor, she has been a consistent name and reliable presence in the lineup all season long.
The energy Karas had as a kid has followed her out of the warehouse in Chicago and into the gym at Michigan. As a freshman, Karas has already made her mark on Michigan gymnastics — she finished the season ranked among the top-10 gymnasts nationally in three events: she tied for second on beam, seventh on floor and 10th in the all-around.
Karas has been a force in the all-around, winning the event four times in the past season. She also has 12 individual titles, eight of which were on vault.
It’s clear that Karas’ strong suit is vault. She made her college debut at the Cancun Classic, where she won vault with a 9.925. She also received a second-place finish at the Big Ten Championships with the same score. Her career best is a 9.950, and in a meet against Eastern Michigan and Maryland, one judge even awarded Karas a 10.0 for the event.
However, one can’t be an all-around winner just by performing well on the vault. Known for her energetic floor routines, Karas has also racked up three individual floor titles this year.
“Seeing her in competition and seeing how charismatic she is, you just can’t miss her,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “You sit in a gym and you have all of this stuff going on around you, but no matter where she is in the gym, your attention will just be drawn to her because of how charismatic and dynamic she is.”
There’s no doubt about it, Karas is charismatic. She’s still the energetic gymnast she was in that run-down warehouse in Chicago.
Karas may only be a freshman, but she’s a freshman who has been consistently leading the pack all year. With her accomplishments and personality, it’s clear that the little girl who used to flip off couches has exceeded all expectations.