It’s one of the first sounds you hear walking into the Newt Loken Gymnastics Training Center: the “sonic boom.”
The explosive blast of junior Joe Catrambone’s laughter can overwhelm almost any background noise. It signals the start of another day at practice – and that Catrambone’s feeling good. A 5-foot-3 ball of energy, especially after chugging a Mountain Dew Code Red, Catrambone can affect everyone in the gym with his mood.
And this season, Catrambone has rebounded dramatically from a frustrating sophomore year to become the No. 1 high bar performer in the country.
“When he’s having a good day in the gym, there’s just this positive energy and atmosphere that everyone feels,” freshman Ian Makowske said. “I think that’s the beginning of a leader, in that you can see his influence on the team.”
Warming up on high bar, his best event, Catrambone resembles a swinging frog. With his limbs flying in all directions, the fact that he actually possesses proper joints suddenly seems questionable.
“He’s pretty much like a human pretzel,” sophomore Torrance Laury said.
But as easily as flipping a switch, Catrambone snaps into perfect form. Though he’s the third-shortest gymnast on the team, his extension on high bar is so pronounced that he seems long-bodied. He smoothly executes difficult skills, including a stretched Yamawaki release, where he throws himself over the bar like a dolphin, and a dynamic triple backflip dismount.
But it’s been a long and difficult return to the top of the high-bar rankings – and to that happy-go-lucky personality.
As a freshman, Catrambone’s smile seemed permanent and his confidence unshakable. Not only was he one of the team’s best high-bar men, he also competed in the all-around in most meets.
But last year, he slumped severely. Early on, Catrambone was cut back to just three events: rings, parallel bars and high bar. A rock-bottom parallel-bars routine in March triggered his removal from that event lineup for the rest of the season. And after placing fifth on high bar at the 2007 Winter Cup, Catrambone didn’t hit a routine on his favorite apparatus until NCAA team qualifiers.
From day one, Catrambone had taken the concept of team gymnastics to heart, and the feeling of letting his teammates down was hard to bear.
“It was more frustrating knowing that it was for the team, and having the guys watching, every single weekend, day in and day out, every practice,” Catrambone said.
His discouragement was readily apparent. Small mistakes on easy skills could ruin a practice, leaving him silent and frustrated for the entire afternoon.
Even his parents were upset by the season. Catrambone talks to them on a daily basis, and they’ve almost never missed a meet since he started gymnastics at the age of three.
“(It was) hard, especially being so far away, even though we did talk a lot,” said Pat Catrambone, Joe’s mother. “With him, I think a lot of it was mental.”
The Deptford, N. J., native couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Though his old brilliance returned briefly at NCAAs, he remained inconsistent and searched doggedly for a solution.
He consulted former Michigan team captains Chris Gatti and Justin Toman, trying to discover what had made them such successful competitors. A psychology major, Catrambone looked to sports psychology books for help.
“It’s changed my focus on what I’m doing, why I compete, how I practice,” Catrambone said of his work to regain his confidence. “My approach to it is a little different. . Not everything is going to be perfect every time.”
In preparation for U. S. Senior National Team Qualifiers and Championships, Catrambone continued practicing routines all summer, a time when most gymnasts scale back their workouts and learn new skills. He began to focus less on the entire routine and more on individual skills, meanwhile working to hone the mental aspect of his sport.
Catrambone’s new methods and positive attitude had obvious results. Now, he’s one of Michigan’s go-to competitors in meets. He’s won the high bar title in three of his six meets this season.
Last year’s co-captain Andrew Elkind, who grew up with Catrambone, noticed the change even from his new home in Colorado through regular phone calls with his friend.
“I could tell he was much more confident going into the season,” Elkind said. “Right from the get-go, (he) had that excited attitude. He’s much more excited and ready to go this year.”
Once again, the team can count on Catrambone for a big high-bar score in the clutch. His holds and positions on rings improve weekly, and his parallel-bars sets have grown more and more consistent. When called on, he can even add solid performances on the floor exercise and vault.
His positivity extends beyond his own performances. Catrambone is constantly plugging different team nights for the gymnasts and shooting off encouraging e-mails to various teammates.
“Joe’s very vocal,” said junior Ralph Rosso, who has known Catrambone since they were seven years old. “You can hear him from wherever you are in the gym. . Knowing that he wants you to do better pushes you to do better, because you have somebody else who believes in you.”
And Catrambone always provides entertainment in the gym, with his outsized personality and dramatic crashes. Thanks to his flexibility, tremendous even for a gymnast, he always seems to bounce back.
Whenever Bill Shinavier, the team’s trainer, hears a crash from the training room, his usual response is to poke his head out and ask, “Where’s Joe?” In the span of one week last season, Catrambone fell from the high bar onto his head three times. Of course, he competed in that weekend’s meet.
“Joe has crashes and gets up and miraculously lives through them, when most people would be on a gurney,” junior Jamie Thompson said.
Despite the falls, Catrambone has never missed a collegiate meet due to injury. And he’s only getting better.
One of Catrambone’s old teammates from New Jersey, Sean Golden, is now on the U. S. Senior National Team. He said with time, Catrambone could be extremely successful in his sport.
“I think if he would believe in himself, or see the potential within himself that others see, that his level of competition would raise exponentially,” Golden said.
This season, Catrambone doesn’t just believe in that potential. He’s making it a reality.