Olivia Karas isn’t used to watching from the sidelines.
The junior suffered a season-ending Achilles injury during the Michigan women’s gymnastics team’s meet on Feb. 4., which meant she could only watch Saturday’s competition against No. 40 Michigan State University from a wheelchair.
Despite losing a key member of the team, the seventh-ranked Wolverines put on a strong showing, defeating the Spartans, 197.250-194.950.
“I especially love the fact that after the loss of (Karas) last week, we went to work immediately,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “We only really had three good training days to be able to get people ready, and so many people stepped up.”
That included freshman Lauren Farley, who debuted on floor exercise with a clean routine and hit a career-best beam routine to tie for first place on the event.
“With (Karas) out, I knew I had to step up and do it for her,” Farley said. “It was awesome to do something bigger than myself today.”
Saturday’s meet carried significance for the Wolverines as it was their third annual “Flip for Chip” event in honor of Chip Hills. Hills, the father of student assistant coach Cailee Hills, died of pancreatic cancer in 2015. Crisler Center was awash in purple, the awareness color of pancreatic cancer, with each fan carrying a purple light stick and the gymnasts sporting purple “Flip for Chip” t-shirts and purple face tattoos.
Michigan began the competition on vault, with each gymnast executing a clean vault. Freshman Syd Townsend won the event title with a score of 9.90 after completing a 1.5-twist Yurchenko, the most difficult vault exhibited in the competition.
On the uneven bars, sophomore Polina Shchennikova performed a routine that included difficult release combinations and ended with just a small step backwards on her double tuck dismount. Similarly, senior Brianna Brown’s routine was well-executed and the only small misstep came on the landing of her double layout dismount. Brown and Shchennikova both scored 9.875 to tie for first place on the event alongside Michigan State senior Hailee Westney.
The Wolverines put in a strong beam rotation, scoring a season-high 49.425 on the event. Beam is often a harrowing event, but Michigan showed no signs of worry. Farley stuck her Gainer pike dismount to cap a routine that included a challenging back handspring-layout-stepout-layout-stepout series and scored 9.925. Shchennikova matched the score with a stuck dismount of her own to tie with Farley for the beam event title.
“It was so much fun, so good to put that exclamation point on, stick that dismount,” Farley said. “It was so cool, and everyone is so excited and supportive.”
The final rotation, floor exercise, showed Karas’ abscence the most. Karas is the reigning Big Ten champion on the event. But Farley’s debut on floor showed good promise for the future, with three stuck tumbling passes and a score of 9.850.
Junior Emma McLean went last for Michigan on floor and put in a characteristically strong performance, sticking two of her tumbling passes for a score of 9.950 and her fifth consecutive event title.
Hard work in practice paid off for the Wolverines in the win. They will seek to continue performing well on their quest for a fifth straight Big Ten championship, even if they must do so without Karas.
“We have been doing a lot more intrasquads in the gym, and they have been just really doing a fantastic job,” said Plocki. “I would like to go back and tell them, ‘We gotta keep this up in practice, because look at the results we were able to see in the competition.’”