It all started in the summer of 2013.
Emma McLean, a rising high school junior, was spending a beautiful day on a boat in northern Michigan. Her phone rang, the screen flashed the name “Olivia Karas.” She answered.
“I just committed to Michigan!!” said the girl on the other end.
And just like that, McLean had her future Michigan women’s gymnastics counterpart, and a dynamic duo was born.
Right off the bat, the two became immensely close. Like, finishing-each-other’s-sentences close, so it’s no surprise that McLean and Karas spent all of their time together trying to figure out the game called life. There were times when they would miss the bus and chase after it so they wouldn’t be late to practice, or would miss dinner and would eat dry cereal on McLean’s dorm room floor.
“I think that coming in as a two-person class, you’re kinda automatically bonded and put through everything together,” Karas said. “Which I think we both liked. I think we have similar but different personalities, so we complement each other nicely. I think you get tossed into this environment with just one other person and we just kinda —
“…We just kinda have to figure it out,” finished McLean. “That’s something that’s important to explain to every freshman class. Like, there’s no guidebook, there’s no handbook, no one’s there to hold your hand and tell you what college is going to be like. Nothing prepares you for it. And I think having to figure that out with each other really just forms that bond.”
As the lone two newcomers on the Michigan women’s gymnastics team when they arrived, the adjustment, unsurprisingly, was difficult. However, they always knew that they had a strong, loving team as their backbone. And they used that fortitude to make sure that everyone else that came in had that same secure, cherished feeling.
“I think that when we were freshmen, we did get that love,” Karas said. “And we were kinda taken in as the babies that everyone really did love. And we got that affection right off the bat.
“But some people didn’t … so I think for the two of us, we saw that, and were like, ‘There’s no more of this (feeling of exclusion). This is how it goes. This is how we’re going to do it.’ It’s taking everyone under your wing, appreciating everyone … there’s no hierarchy.”
Using that inclusive mentality, McLean and Karas have taken their experiences and tenure to create a lead-by-example mindset for the rest of the team. That means going up to a teammate before they are about to compete and giving words of encouragement or cheering as loud as they can from the side because they know it’s that teammate’s personal preference. It means knowing that everyone is different, and accepting and utilizing those differences to bring the team closer together.
“It means being…,” Karas started.
“Balanced,” McLean said.
It’s not just the love that brings the team together. It’s the fact that, going into national championship weekend, they have so much still to prove.
“Personally, I think I’m looking forward to just shocking everyone,” McLean said. “And I think, something that I know Michigan says — I think it was the basketball team that used it a long time ago — ‘Shock the world.’ That kind of thing.”
But the best part about being a leader is learning, too.
“You learn more every single year that you’re here, and your senior year, you kinda put it all together,” McLean said. “And you’re like, ‘This is why.’ And I think this year, (Michigan coach) Bev (Plocki) has helped me learn that when we believe in ourselves, the sky is the limit. And I think going through adversity and never giving up really brings it full circle.”
Karas agreed and reminisced about how last year, she questioned whether she even wanted to try to ever do a floor routine after tearing her Achilles. She remembers the work, the frustration, but the ultimate realization of why she's here shone through.
“This year is definitely my ‘why,’ ” Karas said. “Because of this group, this team, what we’ve accomplished so far, and what we will accomplish.”
Since that day in that summer of 2013, Karas and McLean have rebounded from injury, learned countless lessons, developed incredible skills, and grown tremendously as teammates, housemates, leaders, and friends. And now, as seniors, going into their final weekend competing in the maize and blue, they’ve taken time to reflect on their years in Ann Arbor.
“I would definitely thank this whole University for the pride in Michigan,” Karas said.“I think once you get here, there is an automatic ‘We are Michigan, we bleed maize and blue, we’re the leaders and best.’ And I think that’s ingrained in everyone, athlete or not.”
Added McLean: “Walking around on campus, where else would you rather be? I don’t think there’s anywhere that’s better. The experience as a whole has been great, and well-rounded. It’s just been the best. From the second I got on campus freshman year, I’ve loved every second.”
So, what next?
Standing in sweatpants before conditioning in the Donald R. Shepherd Women’s Gymnastics Training Center for one of the last times ever, reminiscing on the times they’ve had at Michigan and together, the duo looked at each other and laughed.
“I think it’s going to be interesting experiencing life without a sport in a few weeks, but we’ll figure it out,” Karas said. “Like we always do.”
“That’s literally our thing,” McLean said. “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, but we’ll figure it out. like we have so far … There’s never a dull moment.”
Karas laughed, and repeated:
“Never a dull moment.”