Sophomore Evan Heiter stood in the corner of the floor at the Maize and Blue Intrasquad in December, about to perform for the first time as a Wolverine. In a year at Michigan, he’d landed his first floor pass, a layout punch front double full, just once in practice.
Heiter’s teammates on the Blue Team sat in chairs lining one side of the floor. They had watched as Heiter worked tirelessly on the routine in practice, bouncing up after every fall to try again.
If he landed that first pass, they were ready to explode.
Heiter’s gymnastics epitaph seemed destined to be that he started late and ended early. While most gymnasts start when they’re four to six years old, Heiter didn’t begin until he was nine. And after competing from third to seventh grade, the youngster was burnt out.
“I couldn’t dedicate enough time to still be the kind of gymnast that I wanted to be,” Heiter said. “So I decided to walk away.”
He walked away for six years, the years when most eventual collegiate gymnasts are honing their skills and drawing notice from NCAA coaches. Finally, before his senior year of high school, Heiter began competing again, hoping to continue with club gymnastics in college.
After high school, the Pinckney native enrolled at Western Michigan, where he trained two or three days a week at a club gym in Kalamazoo. There was no coach, but he kept in touch with his old club coach, Chris Chanavier, with weekly phone calls and monthly visits home.
Chanavier competed for Iowa when Michigan coach Kurt Golder headed the program. And during Heiter’s semester at Western, he received a call from Golder: A spot might become available on the men’s gymnastics team. In Nov. 2006, freshman Bruno Savard was cut from the team. The move wasn’t popular with most of the gymnasts, but the coaches felt it was for the best.
And it opened the door for Heiter.
At Michigan, Heiter stepped into a new world, training three hours a day, six days a week with some of the top gymnasts in the country.
“Once I got here, it was basically a shock to my system,” Heiter said. “My body has never hurt so much.”
But his challenges weren’t limited a grueling new workout regimen. His new teammates, though welcoming, were still smarting from the loss of Savard, who had become a close friend to many of them.
When the Wolverines found out Heiter was coming to replace their old teammate, they weren’t exactly overjoyed. Fans of the TV show “Lost” on the team started calling him “Ethan,” the name of the show’s villain.
“We were like, ‘Evan? Who is this Evan kid?’ ” junior Ralph Rosso said. “So we called him Ethan for a while, or at least we did behind his back.”
Rosso laughed. “And then when we started to know him, we said it to his face.”
Heiter’s well-developed sense of humor and diligent work ethic soon endeared him to even his most resistant teammates. Today, no gymnast can talk about Heiter without grinning ear-to-ear.
“The only thing I knew was that no one could have replaced Bruno,” junior Joe Catrambone said of his mindset before Heiter arrived. Now, the two are regular dinner buddies at the Union, one of Heiter’s favorite hangouts.
His teasing and antics are legendary. Earlier in the year, he had the entire team in stitches with his exaggerated song-and-dance impression of Athens, Ga., native Jamie Thompson.
“He can actually change characters pretty drastically,” Rosso said. “One moment he’s serious, the next moment he’s from the South and he’s got an accent and he’s talking about possum stew, impersonating Jamie.”
He’s found another kindred spirit in junior Scott Bregman.
After all, it’s not every day you find another person with equal enthusiasm for gymnastics trivia and watching old World Championships tapes.
“Sometimes we’ll be like, ‘Let’s watch the 1983 event finals tape,’ ” Bregman said. “And I pull it out and we watch it. He’s just so much fun to hang out with. . He makes me laugh until I cry more than anyone.”
NCAA rules stipulate that the team can travel just 15 gymnasts to each competition. So Heiter takes his act on the road, driving to any away meet within reasonable distance and often bringing along several of his non-traveling teammates.
Last season he went to Columbus, Minnesota and Penn State to cheer on his teammates. This year, he drove to Chicago with Bregman and freshmen Ben Baldus-Strauss and Devan Cote, cracking them up the whole way with his sing-alongs and zingers.
“He knows every song ever and every piece of pop culture,” Baldus-Strauss said. “It’s smart humor. He has so much knowledge about everyday things, he just stuns you.”
For Heiter, it’s just about being the best teammate he can possibly be.
“For the guys who aren’t competing, it’s good to get together and still have that camaraderie,” Heiter said. “The trips are sometimes time consuming, but in the end, if I was out there on the floor, I’d want all my teammates to be there.”
Heiter’s new world isn’t all fun and games, though. After six years away from the sport, his development is behind that of his teammates With 24 gymnasts fighting for 12 competition spots, he hasn’t made it into the starting lineup, and likely won’t until next year. He’s the only non-redshirt who hasn’t been an alternate yet this season.
Gymnastics isn’t like most team sports, where a blowout allows a coach to empty the bench. No matter how big a lead Michigan gets, Golder cannot use any gymnasts other than the 12 in the starting lineup, making it unlikely that even an alternate would see action.
But a situation that would send most people into a funk hasn’t dampened Heiter’s cheerful personality. Rather than throwing in the towel, the walk-on gymnast quickly distinguished himself as one of the hardest workers on the team. His dedication matches that of Michigan’s stars, and Bregman even calls him the “heart and soul” of the team.
“Every time I look over, he’s taking another turn on vault or another turn on floor,” Rosso said. “Sometimes the coaches need to tell him to stop, which is a good work ethic to have.”
Heiter came onto the team without a high-difficulty skill – now, he’s put together a complete floor routine with two such elements and can do a full twisting vault.
More than most, Heiter appreciates being on a varsity team. For him, it almost didn’t happen.
“A lot of people say that being on a sports team is such a big privilege, but I feel like it means a little bit more to me,” Heiter said. “I wasn’t even doing the sport two years ago and now I’m among some of the best people in the nation, the world even, being an NCAA gymnast.”
Heiter ran forward and threw himself into the pass as he had hundreds of times. Like magic, he spun into the double full and landed with a tiny hop on the mat. His teammates erupted in cheers.
“His facial expression was just ridiculous, and he was so excited,” Catrambone said.
Heiter doesn’t remember much but the euphoria.
“I was kind of in shock and everyone knew that I had struggled through getting an entire routine together,” Heiter said. “I’m sure I was going at light speed because it was all a blur. I remember landing my first pass and landing my dismount and I don’t really remember anything in between.”
Bouncing in his chair, Bregman could barely contain his delight as Heiter completed one of his best routines ever.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen him land that first pass,” Bregman said. “He showed that he’s a gamer and he can do it when it counts. I was just really, really excited for him, because he works so hard in the gym every day. To see that pay off when it counted was real exciting.”