Through adversity, Olivia Karas rediscovers herself
In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its second annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Daily Sports Editor Anna Marcus continues the series with this story.
With a hand on her hip and the other pointed towards the sky, Olivia Karas beamed.
It was the last routine of the annual Flip for Chip meet on Feb. 3, and the senior gymnast had just nailed a double pike in her floor performance to give Michigan an edge over Nebraska.
She struck that final pose, a staple of her floor routine, as the music shut off. The sounds of Madonna, Frank Sinatra and a touch of “High School Musical” were replaced by standing ovations in Crisler Center and a screaming women’s gymnastics team.
While Karas was consumed by the embrace of her teammates at mat’s center, the board flashed 9.950 for her outing. One judge awarded her a perfect 10.
Karas had performed numerous variations of the routine in practices and meets before and has executed many updated versions of it since that day.
But that meet in early February sticks out to Michigan coach Bev Plocki. Olivia Karas was back, and she was having a ball.
Putting on a show when competing is a talent that comes naturally to Karas, one that she already had a knack for when she began her Michigan gymnastics career four years ago.
The outgoing and bubbly gymnast did not shy away from the spotlight her freshman season, and quickly became defined by her dramatic performances that captivated crowds.
“She tells us all the time, ‘I come from a family of actors.’ ” Plocki said. “So her parents both did some acting, I think her mom even more so than her dad.”
Along with theatricality running in the family, Karas’ club coach emphasized the importance of choreography before she came to Michigan. At her club gym, the Chicago native spent time focusing on presentation along with technicality, learning early on to keep her eyes up off of the floor and the beam.
Equipped with these skills, Karas not only dazzled audiences in her debut season, but judges were paying attention, too.
As Plocki recalls:
“She was kind of an instant sensation.”
Karas took the Big Ten by storm in that first year, bringing in recognition after recognition. She shocked the conference as a nine-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week and a three-time Big Ten Gymnast of the Week. She was named to the All-Big Ten first team and claimed Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. She finished the season ranked as the No. 2 vaulter in the nation and No. 7 on the floor exercise. The list could go on.
In addition to all of Karas’ individual accomplishments, the women’s gymnastics team was, as usual, having a banner year. Michigan won the 2016 Big Ten Championship in Lincoln, Neb., and sent three gymnasts to the NCAA Championships.
For wide-eyed Karas and her classmate Emma McLean, competing in their first Big Ten Championship proved to be an experience that exceeded expectations.
“My freshman year, everyone always told Emma and I that winning Big Tens was the best feeling ever,” Karas recalled. “And you watch it and you’re like ‘Yeah it looks pretty cool’ — obviously you’re winning your conference — but you don’t really get it until you experience it.
“It was just one of those moments that I’ll never forget.”
The 2017 season brought more success for Karas, who performed her way to a career-high vault score of 9.975 and once again earned herself a spot on the All-Big Ten first team list. Michigan collected another Big Ten Championship and was crowned the winner of its NCAA Regional.
Beginning conference competition in 2018 with an electric floor performance against Ohio State, earning a top-scoring 9.950, Karas’ junior season was on track to follow a similar trajectory to her first two.
But then it didn’t. During the fifth meet of the year against Maryland, in the middle of her floor routine, Karas tore her Achilles tendon. Karas’ junior season abruptly ended while performing in one of her favorite rotations.
If it weren’t for the wheelchair and boot, it would have been hard to tell that Karas was injured at all. Though sidelined, she maintained a larger than life presence at meets, cheering and screaming louder than any other gymnast and radiating positivity as her teammates competed.
Plocki remembers having to “calm down” Karas, who was sometimes jumping and cheering while wearing her boot.
“(Karas) didn’t reserve any of that energy for herself,” Plocki said. “She gave every single bit of what she had to the team.”
Despite the constant smile present on Karas’ face, coming to terms with her injury did not come as easily as it may have appeared.
“I definitely had moments where I think I tried so hard to be a positive force for my teammates and sometimes didn’t let myself feel pain and sadness,” Karas said. “But there were some days where Emma — she knows me so well — she would be like, ‘You need to let yourself feel’ because I would try to mask the fact that I had torn my Achilles with this like ‘Everything’s fine, don’t dwell on it’ attitude, but everything wasn’t fine.
“And once I came to terms with the fact that I did get hurt and I’m allowed to be upset, I think I became more authentic in how I cheered for my teammates.”
For Karas, it took a little over a month to deal mentally with the pain in a productive way and to let herself lean on others for help. She found that this better attitude came along once she had increased physical mobility. Throughout the entire healing process, though, her team provided her with consistent love and support.
Sometimes, small acts and a little extra effort meant the most. Be it from cooking dinners, to giving her pep talks, to carrying her from the car, the entire team chipped in to function as a support system for Karas during the injury.
“It’s impossible to not lean on them as family members,” Karas said. “I don’t think they know how much they helped me. There were days that I really did not want to be here at all, because I was like, ‘If I can’t do a floor routine, if I can’t compete, like what am I even doing,’ and they reminded me that there are so many more things than gymnastics in life.”
McLean, as a roommate and best friend, particularly took on these duties, providing care for Karas. And it wasn’t always glamorous. Karas explained that McLean helped her with showering and carried her places regularly, all while McLean was still practicing and competing.
For McLean, though, being there to help was second nature. The two have had a strong bond since freshman year, and when McLean had a neck injury during her first season, Karas was always there to lend a hand.
“We do talk about how we’ve helped each other through our hard times,” McLean said. “I think just being there for each other at the end of each day, and helping each other smile no matter what.
“And the injury, it’s how you respond to it, not necessarily the injury itself.”
It’s safe to say Karas got her comeback campaign.
She recently received two regular season All-American honors for her senior year and she tied with freshman Natalie Wojcik for the top all-around score at the Big Ten Championship last weekend. Karas has been named one of six finalists for the AAI Award — an award given to the nation's top senior gymnast.
At first, it wasn’t easy to picture herself in the place she is now.
“I definitely got to the point where I would try to do something and get so mad that I couldn’t do it, but I had to remind myself that I hadn’t done it for seven months, so obviously it’s going to be hard,” Karas said.
Slowly, Karas was able to build herself back up to the role of an elite competitor on the floor exercise. She had to teach herself how to enjoy the floor again, overcoming the serious mental barrier that came while performing the event that had led to her injury.
She, too, will never forget how she felt after her clean double pike at the end of February’s meet against Nebraska, viewing it as a highlight of her career. And Karas takes pride in how far she has come.
“Getting hurt my junior year and getting kind of a victory lap (this season) is more than I could ask for,” Karas said.
In Karas’ opinion, her comeback isn’t fully complete yet. Michigan awaits its NCAA Regional, and Karas has more routines left to ace as a Wolverine.
“I like to say that I’m 98 percent back,” she said, “and that the 100 will get there when it needs to.”
One thing Karas will admit, though, is that in her senior season, she feels the most herself. She has found music combinations that are authentic and the most “her” and has a stronger mentality, allowing her true self to shine in competition more than it ever has before.
“I came in here really wanting to be perfect in everything, and in these four years, both in life and gymnastics, I’ve realized that mistakes are part of the process, and the only way to get through it is to laugh it off and to just get over it,” Karas said.
Finally allowing herself to embrace those mistakes, Karas is having the most fun.