It was a moment years in the making.
Last Thursday night, four parallel bars scoreboards twirled slowly at Penn State’s Recreation Hall. All eyes focused on the members of the Michigan men’s gymnastics team – could they get the 9.0 score to snatch a Super Six berth from arch rival Ohio State?
Calculations whirred at lightning speed in the gymnasts’ heads. A millisecond later, the explosion hit.
Senior co-captain Andrew Elkind ran back out onto the mats, swinging from the bars with irrepressible joy. Teammates embraced and rejoiced as their families and fans, seated as close to the bench as possible, screamed with glee.
Michigan gymnastics, after finishing fourth at NCAAs and on the podium for the first time since 2002, is back on the map.
“I feel like we’re redeeming Michigan from the 2000 (season),” Elkind said. “(The 1999 championship team was) basically starting a dynasty like Oklahoma, and then just hit a real down trend in the program. I think we’re starting to spark Michigan as an elite program again.”
Despite its youth – eight sophomores and six freshmen – the team dedicated itself to one goal this season: It would not watch team finals from the stands.
“I was on podium freshman and senior year,” said fifth-year senior co-captain Justin Laury, the only current Wolverine who had ever stood on the NCAA podium before last Friday. “Definitely by far this one (feels better). . Freshman year, I didn’t know what else to expect. This year it meant a lot more because of what we had to go through the whole season.”
From the start, the Wolverines’ newfound resolve was obvious. They tacked up preseason rankings and articles in the gym, all predicting another disappointing year, determined to prove their doubters wrong.
And in the first meet of the season, the Windy City Invitational, Michigan blew the competition away, claiming the Invitational’s top award as a team – the way it would do everything this season.
The Wolverines continued their reemergence as a gymnastics power, obliterating Iowa in their first dual meet before notching two historic wins – one against then-No. 3 Oklahoma in Ann Arbor, the other against then-No. 2 Penn State in State College. Michigan was the only team to best Penn State at home in 2007.
“Beating Penn State in our dual meet (was my favorite moment of the season),” senior Aaron Rakes said. “I almost cried I was so happy.”
Though they struggled in the second half of the season with consistency and injuries, the Wolverines hit at NCAAs when it mattered most. And even though they didn’t finish first, this season will always sparkle in their memories, especially for the three seniors.
Elkind gained All-America status for the first time in his career with his fourth-place finish on parallel bars. Laury, despite injuries that limited him all season, realized his dream of making it back to the all-around at NCAAs and also earned All-America honors. And Rakes won a Big Ten high bar championship.
“This was the most enjoyable season of my career, and I wouldn’t change any of the experiences that I had,” Rakes said. “I don’t have regrets this year. . I love this team, and at NCAAs when I saw the other teams and their friendships I realized that I made the right decision with competing for Michigan.”
Said sophomore Ralph Rosso: “It’s pretty sad to see (the seniors) go. But we’ll never stop being teammates. We’ll never stop being family.”
With the majority of the team returning and several top-notch recruits scheduled to arrive, next year should be just as jam-packed with excitement and amazing memories as this one.
“I think they better rank us No. 1 (going into next season),” Rosso said. “(With) our freshmen coming in, junior national team members, (and) having pretty much our whole team back because we’re so young – people better watch out.”