A perfect 10: Natalie Wojcik and the joy of gymnastics
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. We continue the series with this story from Shira Zisholtz.
It was 2002. A young, blonde, wide-eyed three-year-old girl sat in front of the TV watching professional athletes in sparkly leotards defy gravity as they threw themselves into the air, flipped, twisted and landed perfectly on two feet. The girl, ambitious and intrigued, figured, “Why shouldn’t I try that?” She took a cushion off her sofa, took a breath and threw herself into a back handspring.
She landed on her head, assured her mom she was OK, and shortly thereafter, her mom enrolled her in gymnastics classes.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
Fast forward to Feb. 23, 2019. The Michigan women's gymnastics team is competing at the Big Five Meet to claim the regular-season title. That young, blonde, wide-eyed girl is standing in front of thousands, donning her own sparkly leotard of maize and blue. She mentally reviewed her routine “key words,” took a breath and took off.
She ran, propelled herself onto the vault, pushed off to complete a Yurchenko 1 ½ — and stuck the landing.
The crowd went crazy. Her team ran to her with tears of joy. The last time the Wolverines performed to this caliber on vault was in 2011.
The score flashed.
Natalie Wojcik, the freshman phenomenon, had her first career perfect 10.
Wojcik has had an incredible career at Michigan thus far, with 31 career event and all-around victories, earned Freshman of the Week honors five times and Gymnast of the Week eight. When she was being recruited, she visited only one school – the University of Michigan – fell in love and never looked back. And it’s safe to say the Wolverines haven’t looked back, either.
“Natalie is really the whole package,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “People always ask you the question, ‘Have they lived up to your expectations? Or, did you expect her to be this good? And my sense when I get asked that question is that it’s kind of a loaded question … but this is a case, with her, where we expected her to be outstanding, and she even exceeded the outstanding expectations that we had for her.”
Wojcik has proven her excellence in her individual performances. But to her, competing as a Wolverine means so much more – it means being part of a team.
“The team honestly gives me so much energy and just helps me feel confident knowing that I have them behind me,” she explains. “When it’s a tough day they cheer you on and when it’s a good day they cheer you on, too. So just being able to have each other’s backs and being there for each other day in and day out has been really special.”
Despite her stellar record, it isn't always perfect 10s for Natalie. She falls in practices, she won’t stick her landings at meets, she’ll hyperextend her knees after a challenging floor pass. She will spend hours in practice trying to perfect a new routine, a new skill, and will push herself until she gets it right.
And yet, with all of the frustration, challenges and push to perfection, Wojcik still wants to do what she does.
In doing so, she follows sound advice that she would give to others.
“You have to do it for the pure joy of the sport, not just what you are trying to get out of it,” Wojcik said. “You have to enjoy every single day and be able to pour your passion into it. And if you’re focused on attaining one goal that’s great, but you also have to remember to have fun and enjoy it.”
Like Natalie, one of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever gotten is “If you don’t wake up every day excited that you do what you do, you’re not doing the right thing.”
That piece of advice has stuck with me, lingering in the back of my mind when someone inevitably questions what I could possibly want to do in sports, if I have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work out, what studying “sport management” even means.
Plocki, who is in her 29th season as head coach for the Wolverines, gives the same advice to her athletes.
“Understand that there will be days that you don’t enjoy it, and so never base any decision off of a bad day," Plocki said. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing every day to be able to put the kind of passion and work ethic into it. And to somebody like Natalie, or anybody that’s on our team, I tell my athletes all the time that you’re here because you have a passion to want to do this, and part of that passion is continuing to grow and excel.”
This advice, though simple and pretty common-sensical, has gotten me, an excessively ambitious and optimistic student and sports fan, through barrages of skepticism and doubt. It has also gotten an extremely accomplished gymnast through the days of failure, of injury, of uncertainty.
As women pursuing careers in sports, be it as an athlete, a journalist, a CEO of a franchise, an analyst, a broadcaster, we have gone through years of questions, the metaphorical falls and hyperextensions.
So, if you are a Natalie Wojcik — an aspiring athlete — or someone who is pushing for that proverbial perfect 10, Plocki has one last piece of advice for you:
“Go after your dream. If you want to do something in your heart, then find a way to go do it.”