A month before the Michigan women’s gymnastics team rose to No. 1 in the national poll on Jan. 11, the Wolverines couldn’t even field a full team for their own exhibition meet.
The week of the meet, one gymnast split her toe open on a fall and needed six stitches. Another missed on a bar mount and sprained ligaments in her neck. Another was ill most of last fall.
“We just seemed to have had whatever was going around,” said coach Bev Plocki on Wednesday.
The morning of the meet, another gymnast got sick and yet another had a personal emergency.
“It was almost like, ‘Don’t anybody else come talk to me!’ ” Plocki said with an exasperated smile. “But look where we are now.”
Where they are now is fully healthy and ranked in the top five in the country with a legitimate shot to win the national championship in April. Michigan struggled at the exhibition meet, losing to Eastern Michigan. Four weeks later, the Wolverines were in Cancun, Mexico, scoring a season-high 196.975, winning the meet and garnering the No. 1 national ranking the next week.
“We did not at all like the way that we performed or the impression that we potentially gave people at how we looked in that (exhibition),” Plocki said. “I think there was a little bit of a pride factor that, gosh, we gotta come back from Christmas and pull this together and go out and prove to some people what we’re capable of doing.”
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Gymnastics doesn’t have stopwatches or yard markers or goals. It has a human judge who sits in a chair and gives points to routines, almost entirely based on the success of the routine but, invariably, also based on perception.
“Let’s face it — our sport is judged subjectively,” Plocki said. “A human being sits in a chair, and they have a perception about whether you’re going to be good or whether you’re going to be average.”
So the path to a championship at the end of the season requires not just practicing and refining all of a team’s routines but also proving to the rest of the country that team can execute them.
By the spring, the judges know who the top teams are and who they expect to be at the top of the scoreboards.
“We want to expect ourselves to be there,” Plocki said. “But we need them to expect us to be there too.”
That process starts from the beginning of the season. The Wolverines have now competed in five meets at five different sites in front of five different sets of judges, scoring at least 196 every time. Each week, they prove to more people that they can be in that top tier.
At the exhibition against Eastern Michigan, they slipped up.
“I’m not saying that we were thinking about what the judges thought at the (exhibition), but big picture, yeah,” Plocki said. “I don’t know if they streamed that or not — good heavens, I hope they didn’t — but if that was people’s impression of us out of the gate, they would have been like, ‘This is going to be a rough year for Michigan.’ ”
They would have been wrong. The Wolverines have slowly erased that impression week by week with their improvement in training and their high scores in meets.
From the beginning of the season, Plocki has been open about her belief that Michigan can win a national championship. In her 27 years at the helm of the program, almost no other program has been that consistent. She has won 20 Big Ten championships, including 13 of 14 at one point, and 11 regional championships. In her career, the Wolverines have reached the Super Six 10 times and won eight individual national titles.
The national championship is the only achievement that has eluded her, though not for lack of trying. Michigan has finished second twice, third once and fourth twice.
To make it over the top, the Wolverines must improve every week — which made Friday’s meet such a shock.
In its fifth meet of the season, Michigan scored its lowest total against its toughest Big Ten opponent (Nebraska), suffering its first loss of the season. In the first four, the Wolverines scored 196.975, 196.925, 196.950 and 196.900, putting them right in the thick of the upper echelon of teams.
This weekend’s meet put them just outside that group. That’s how small the margin for error is, and that’s how important it is for them to stay consistent all season. The rest of the year leaves little room for another slip-up.
“We want to prove to everybody in the country that we are consistent and we’re consistently good and we’re continuing to get better,” Plocki said. “I want every athlete on my team to absolutely believe with every fiber of their being that not only do they deserve to be at the Super Six, they expect themselves to be at the Super Six.”
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Three weeks ago was Michigan’s first home meet of the season. The Wolverines won with a score of 196.925, but they made a mistake on every event, according to Plocki. At the end of the meet, they gathered and said to each other, “Boy, that felt like work.”
Since the beginning of the season, Michigan has believed it could win the national championship, but sometimes, that comes with an expectation of winning the national championship. That’s what Michigan tries to avoid.
“That would be pressure,” Plocki said. “And it’s got to be about having fun. I’m a firm believer that sports should be about having fun. If you are not enjoying what you’re doing, you should not be doing it.”
For the most part, the Wolverines have overcome their mistakes this season. But Plocki believes that if all goes well, they can get to the point where they don’t even make those mistakes.
“I like going to the football games where we score a touchdown every drive, and it’s just all cheering and fun,” Plocki said. “I get headaches when it’s the close, back-and-forth games, and whoever has the ball last is probably going to win. Those stress me out.”
Twenty-two Big Ten title banners hang from the rafters in the gymnastics team’s first-class practice facility. It’d be easy to buckle under those expectations. The first thing freshman Olivia Karas noticed on her recruitment visit, however, was that the entire team was together stretching and talking before practice, having fun.
Already, the Wolverines have suffered multiple setbacks this season — injuries, illnesses and finally Friday’s loss. They have an incredibly small margin for error, and it’s getting even smaller.
Michigan won’t be consumed by the pressure, though. What fun would that be?