Sampson finishes runner-up in NCAA floor exercise finals

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By Cindy Yu, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 20, 2014

Even the best gymnasts feel butterflies.

In the final performance of her collegiate career, senior Joanna Sampson represented the No. 7 Michigan women’s gymnastics team on floor exercise in the NCAA individual event finals on Sunday.

Second-to-last in the 13-person lineup, the reigning NCAA floor champion had the opportunity to defend her title inside the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Ala.

“I was actually really nervous, probably the most nervous I had been in a while only because of what I did last year,” Sampson said.

Prior to Sampson, Oklahoma teammates Maileana Kanewa and Haley Scaman had tied for the score to beat, 9.950.

Sampson performed a nearly flawless routine, distinguished by her precise technique and high amplitude on her double layout and double pike tumbling passes.

“Not only does she complete difficult skills, but she’s so incredibly powerful and dynamic that it really makes everyone go ‘wow,’” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki.

Though the double pike is a common maneuver, Sampson is able to obtain more height than many of her competitors. This is especially impressive considering it is her final pass and performed at the end of her routine when she is most fatigued.

The scoreboard flashed 9.950, matching her semifinals score and tying her for first with one gymnast to go. Senior Katherine Grable scored 9.9625 for her unique routine to overtake the three and capture Arkansas’ first floor title.

“In my opinion, I think it was better than last year and was almost as good as I was in preliminaries on Friday,” Sampson said. “I didn’t think my landings were as clean this time. Overall, though, I couldn’t be happier with how I did.”

On top of her spectacular performance, Sampson proved a warrior, fighting through shoulder pain throughout the season and not showing signs of it in competition.

Sampson also competed on uneven bars.

Though she muscled herself up on her first handstand after the hop, she fired through the rest of her routine and capped it off with the most difficult dismount in the final, a full-twisting double layout.

“I competed that dismount a few times last year,” Sampson said. “I actually haven’t really trained it this season but I did it one day in practice this past week just for fun.”

Given approval by assistant coach Scott Sherman to compete the skill in event finals, she asked him again before stepping onto the podium whether she should stick to her double layout or add the extra twist to it.

“It’s all up to you,” Sherman said.

In the middle of her routine, Sampson told herself there was nothing to lose so she opted with the more difficult dismount. She scored 9.7625 and finished 11th on the event.

“It was totally improvised,” Sampson said. “I’m happy with how it turned out and glad I could end up with that.”

Sampson leaves Michigan with an outstanding career. The six-time NCAA All-American has earned nearly every award recognizable: Big Ten Gymnast of the Year, NCAA Northeast Region Gymnast of the Year, University of Michigan Female Athlete of the Year, Academic All-Big Ten and AAI Award Finalist.

“She’s definitely among some of Michigan’s all-time most decorated athletes and will be proudly represented up on our wall of fame,” Plocki said. “She’ll be somebody that’s honored forever.”

The feeling of being done hasn’t really sunk in yet for Sampson.

“I think it’ll sink in once I don’t have to go to the gym anymore,” Sampson said. “That’s really when it’s going to hit. I know in my mind that I’m done but the emotions haven’t caught up to me yet.”

While Sampson won’t be returning to Michigan in the fall, junior Sachi Sugiyama will.

The Keller, Texas native qualified for her first-ever individual event final on vault after sticking her Yurchenko 1.5 in qualifications, earning 9.950 for her performance.

“It was really fun,” Sugiyama said. “It was such an honor to be with such great vaulters and experience a different atmosphere.”

Luckily, she had Sampson and Plocki to calm her down.

“Gosh, we just tried to get her to relax,” Plocki said. “We tried to get her to forget it was finals and forget all the things that are distractions and concentrate on what got her here in the first place.”

Sugiyama executed a clean, difficult vault with great distance and just a tiny, controlled step on the landing. Her 9.8667 tied her for ninth with Utah’s Georgia Dabritz.

Heading into her senior year, Sugiyama has a newfound inspiration and perspective on vault, and looks to make improvements to qualify into that final once again.