Kevin Penev cleanly lifted his arms to the roof of Cliff Keen Arena as he prepared to begin his floor routine.
The freshman’s arms dropped down as he leaped into a graceful run that transformed into laid out flips and twists. Penev migrated to the floor and supported countless orbital spins with only his muscular arms. The move evolved into a headstand that he quickly burst out of, progressing into his final cross. Penev casually finished his routine with three in-air full body backward twists. The judges flashed a 14.300. His floor routine tied with Ohio State’s Sean Neighbarger for second place behind senior Emyre Cole, who scored 14.600 for the Michigan men’s gymnastics team.
Penev, who was the first freshman to compete for the Wolverines this season, was a standout in Michigan’s 413.900 – 402.300 triumph over the rival Buckeyes.
“After my floor routine, I used all of my energy from that to motivate everyone else on my team,” Penev said. “We beat our rival, so that was so exciting.”
Penev built off the momentum from his early success in the first rotation for his second and final event of the day, the high bar, which earned him a 13.000.
“I did not expect to get that score and it was one of the highest scores I’ve ever gotten,” Penev said. “So that was a plus for me and the team.”
While talking about his pre-competition mental state, Penev oozed calmness. His relaxation juxtaposed with the physical intensity of the sport.
“Before I do any routine in any event, I think of doing one skill at a time and not rushing it and being patient with it and letting it go,” Penev said.
With a team score of 72.500 on the vault, the six Wolverines who competed in the event all demonstrated Michigan’s gradual ascension this season to a national ranking of third place. Wolverine coach Kurt Golder hinted that Penev might be a secret weapon to help his team become even more powerful on the vault.
“We will get stronger,” Golder said. “By the end of the year, I expect (sophomore) Cameron (Bock) and Kevin to do those more difficult vaults and, like you saw, our top-five scores will be in that range, instead of just three.”
Though he fell while dismounting from the high bar, Cole, who competed in all six events, was another standout for Michigan. With an all-around score of 84.100, he placed in the top three on five events.
In his fourth year with the team, Cole has assumed a role like that of a mentor towards his younger teammates. The composure he exuded during his failed dismount set a great example for a freshman like Penev.
“I thought I managed it well,” Cole said. “If you do make a mistake, make sure you don’t make anymore. That’s something I yell out to the guys all the time. ‘Perfection. Perfection.’ It was a little fluke, but I think I bounced back well.”
As a freshman, Cole, much like Penev, performed with unbounded potential. He scored an 84.950 all-around for the Wolverines in the 2016 Big Ten Team Finals.
Based on Saturday’s consistently strong performance, Cole complimented his teammates and expressed optimism for the rest of the season.
“These boys have been putting work in the gym and we look really good now,” Cole said. “If we can just transfer what’s going on in the gym out to the competition floor, we’re going to have a Big Ten championship on our hands.”