When senior Joe Catrambone stuck his triple backflip dismount off the high bar at Saturday night’s Big Ten Championships, Michigan coach Kurt Golder leapt up and down like a kid on Christmas morning.
The alumni of the 1999 National Championship team, gathered in Ann Arbor to watch Michigan host Big Tens, stood for Catrambone’s routine — the only time they rose from their seats all night.
Michigan’s fan section and bench went crazy. And in a house in Deptford, N. J., Catrambone’s family joyfully screamed at the television.
Normally, when the senior completes a successful routine, his celebration resembles an angry man trying to start a balky lawnmower. He scowls intensely, pumping his fists as though he might dislocate a shoulder.
On Saturday night, Catrambone just raised his arms in the air and smiled. Written on his face was pure relief.
After three years of postseason frustration, Catrambone won the Big Ten high bar title, part of Michigan’s one-two-three sweep of the event awards. It was a moment he’d waited for his entire career.
“I think the biggest thing that surprised me was Kurt,” Catrambone said. “Him giving me a hug at the end and saying that I’m finally on the Wall (of Fame in the gym) kind of got me. That, and watching the video again. … I’ve never, ever seen Kurt jump in the four years that I’ve been here.”
But as he jogged toward the awards stand at the end of the night, Catrambone wasn’t thinking of what he’d just done.
In his mind’s eye, he saw the past three seasons of missed opportunities at Big Ten Championships.
He saw himself slipping off the bar in Iowa as a freshman. He saw the fall on his full Tak skill two years ago in Minnesota. He saw himself last season in State College, falling off on his full Tak and his jam.
He remembered watching Big Ten event finals from the stands, never capitalizing on the chance to prove he was good enough to be competing in them.
Saturday was completely different.
Though he had to spend over two hours waiting to perform one routine, Catrambone was careful not to tense up. Before saluting the judges, Catrambone visibly suppressed a grin — definitely not business as usual for the intense gymnast.
Just as he’d started to get nervous, the high-bar judges provided some amusement when he went to chalk up.
“I was chalking up and there was no chalk in our box,” Catrambone said. “So I went to the ring one, and I guess the fan was blowing it in the judges’ faces. Three of them were coughing. They had chalk all on their jackets. I was trying not to laugh. … That kind of relaxed me.”
Catrambone has dealt with injuries to his wrist and ankle this year, both of which threatened to derail his senior season and often forced him to water down his routines. On Saturday, none of that was evident. Catrambone even added an extra skill, a full spin, to his set to boost his start value by two tenths of a point.
When the routine was over, his teammates’ delight was evident. Senior Ralph Rosso, who has known Catrambone nearly his entire career, wrapped his friend in a wordless hug. After concluding the night as the last high-bar competitor and runner-up, sophomore Thomas Kelley got in on the congratulations, too.
“I was rooting for everybody in high-bar lineup, but maybe a little bit more for (Catrambone),” Michigan assistant coach Scott Vetere said. “I’m his group coach and I’ve seen him go through quite a lot in the last couple of years, as far as being able to hit in big meets and him having problems. … I’m really proud of him and I hope he continues it at NCAAs. He can definitely be NCAA high-bar champion, no doubt about it. It’s just about him believing.”
Catrambone was one of the last to step off the podium after Michigan’s team title on Friday, trying to stretch the moment as long as possible. He was among the last competitors to leave Crisler Saturday night, too.
“I’ll never forget it,” Catrambone said. “I’ll never forget (Friday) night or (Saturday) for the rest of my life.”