Walking into the Donald R. Shepherd Gymnastics Center, it’s near impossible to miss the maize and blue championship banners that hang in rows all across the ceiling. The flags — 26 in total — create an imposing image against the white interior of the building, a constant reminder of the program’s success.
Freshman Gabby Wilson felt the weight of those banners long before she came to Michigan. Growing up in Ypsilanti, Wilson was always in the stands for the Wolverines’ home meets, watching All-Americans like Sarah Curtis and Natalie Beilstein. Since being recruited her freshman year of high school, she’s been waiting in the wings, seeing Michigan rack up wins year after year. Now continuing that legacy falls on Wilson’s shoulders.
“The hardest part (of the transition to collegiate gymnastics) was getting used to the pride of the ‘block M’ because in high school, we did club gymnastics,” Wilson said. “We weren’t representing our school and our sport at the same time. You don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, but you also want to give your school a reputation.”
Michigan has quite a reputation already, clinching five of the last seven regular-season Big Ten titles and 17 Big Ten championship wins since 2000. With 24 titles, Michigan coach Bev Plocki is the most decorated gymnastics coach in the conference by a mile. The runner-up has just five. Last year, the team continued that success all the way to the NCAA Championships where they finished third behind UCLA and LSU.
In recent history, the Wolverines’ dominance of the Big Ten can be largely traced to All-Americans and recent graduates Olivia Karas and Emma McLean. They held 60 event and all-around titles, four NCAA Championship appearances and 100 routines scoring 9.90 or higher. The duo set the bar high in the gym and out of it, serving as leaders and helping to create the team culture.
“Last year was a pretty specially year,” Plocki said. “I think for a lot of reasons, but one of them was definitely the leadership we had with Emma and Olivia. You can lead vocally and you can lead by example. Both of those two did both. They walked the talk. They were committed. They worked hard everyday. I think that they gave everything that they had and then some.”
After losing two dominant members of the team, Plocki and the rest of the coaching staff got right to work making plans for this upcoming season. In the end of year meetings last spring, the coaches analyzed the Wolverines’ strengths and how they could be replicated the following year. They came to the consensus they had to recreate the culture developed by Karas and McLean.
“They laid the framework for us (current) seniors,” said senior captain Maddy Osman. “My whole class has kind of taken what they’ve done. We’ve taken their leadership, their skills, the way that they cheer, the way that they embodied the ‘block M’ and transitioned it into this year.”
Plocki is confident in the team’s ability to pick up where they left off, both in terms of team chemistry and depth of talent across the squad. The returning athletes have a strong track record with three All-Americans, including Osman and second-time captain, senior Lexi Funk, still on the roster.
Purely looking at the numbers, the freshman class, considered one of the best recruiting classes in the country, balance out the loss of Karas and McLean. With three freshmen who compete for the all-around title replacing two seniors — one of whom didn’t always perform every event — the team should statistically be in a better spot coming into this season.
“The potential is huge,” Plocki said. “Gabby Wilson and Sierra Brooks are just straight up rockstars. Nicoletta Koulos is going to be the secret weapon of our season. She doesn’t have quite the level of difficulty in her skills, but I think she’s a competitor. She’s beautiful to watch and she’s very clean. I think those three freshmen can make a huge impact.”
While Wilson and the rest of the newcomers may feel the pressure of those banners now, Plocki thinks they’ll feel differently after their first competition this weekend, an exhibition against Central, Eastern and Western Michigan.
“It’s a big responsibility to represent the ‘block M’,” Plocki said. “This is the hard part. It’s all the preparation for the fun part that starts with competition. Then — all of the pressure of representing that ‘block M’ — you get to see the reward of that. All of the sudden, not only is it easier, but that pride starts to bubble up inside of you. The next thing you know, you’re preaching that to the next class of freshmen.”