Grandfathers don’t usually cause trouble, but in the case of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team, Janessa Grieco’s grandfather may have been the best trouble that ever happened to it. When Stanley Ostrowski and Grieco were together, mischief was never far behind.
“He was frightening, what he would do with her,” Grieco’s mother, Liana, said. “If she wanted to walk on the top of the monkey bars, he’d let her.”
From throwing Janessa up in the air and flipping her, to letting her do other crazy things, Ostrowski had a big impact on Janessa’s decision to do gymnastics.
Grieco was in and out of the hospital simply because of what her grandfather let her do, including letting her jump from high places or throwing her up and hitting her head on the ceiling. But his time with her was invaluable, as she learned many things about life from him. They were extremely close, going to the park every day to play together and take walks together before he passed away.
“He taught me a lot to not be afraid, and he taught me a lot just in general,” Grieco said. “I think my mom just got sick of me getting in trouble (with him), and so she put me in gymnastics.”
Born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., Grieco grew up in a household that stressed hard work and perseverance. Starting from her immigrant grandparents on both sides of the family, the tradition of working hard has been passed down through the generations. Both her father, Guy, and mother work tirelessly. Seeing that every day helped Grieco to not give up when things were going bad.
“My dad is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen, he works nonstop,” Grieco said. “He grew up with very little, and he’s worked hard to give me everything I’ve had. My mother is the same way.”
When asked if her father is blue or white collar, Grieco responds with a mischievous grin as the training room erupts in laughter.
“He doesn’t wear collared shirts, he wears like just shirts.”
Always willing to smile, and always with a positive attitude, that’s Janessa at her best. You can see it in how she encourages others during practice every day, and even in what her favorite movie is, as unconventional as it may be.
“My favorite movie is ‘Cool Runnings,’ ” Grieco said. “It makes me laugh, and its’s motivating.
“Actually, my mom got me a shirt when we were in Denver, it had Jamaican Bobsled Team on it,” Grieco continued with emphasis. “I was very excited. It might’ve been the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”
Her father is Italian and works for Stericycle, a medical waste company, while her mother is Polish and Czechlosovakian and works at Jodi’s Gym. Greg, her brother, is five years younger than her and is an aspiring soccer player. All three have been very supportive of Janessa through every step of her career.
“My parents have been absolutely wonderful through my whole career,” Grieco said. “(But) my parents still don’t know much about gymnastics, they have no idea.”
Janessa has shown what her parents instilled in her in every aspect of her life. She is a perfectionist in every sense of the word, working hard in the gym and out of it. Grieco expects a lot out of others and respects those who give their all. She is also consciously aware of her faults.
“That’s probably one of my biggest assets and biggest downfalls,” Grieco said. “A lot of times, I’m real hard on myself.”
An Academic All-American all four years of college, she has also worked her way into being one of the top gymnasts for one of the top programs in the country. Involved in community service and always willing to lend a helping hand, Grieco has been a model athlete in Michigan coach Bev Plocki’s eyes.
“Janessa has always been, from the day she walked in the door on campus as a freshman, one of the hardest workers and most committed and dedicated athletes on this team,” Plocki said. “She is definitely a leader by example in and out of the gym.”
When Plocki first started to recruit Grieco, it didn’t take her long to realize Grieco was something special.
“I only had to watch her practice for one day to know what kind of a kid that she was,” Plocki said. “I just knew that this was a kid that went immediately went to the top of our list. You could see what her work ethic was.”
Getting her to Michigan was a little more difficult, though. Because both of Grieco’s parents attended Michigan State, they had always scared her with horror stories of how much it snowed in Michigan. Grieco vowed never to come to Michigan, even though she loved the football uniforms and colors from watching them on TV. But after visiting, she was impressed.
“What I really liked about Michigan was the tradition they had here, and the family atmosphere,” Grieco said. “They recruit the whole person, they don’t just recruit an athlete, and I just fell in love with the school.”
Grieco’s mother had always encouraged her to consider Michigan, but for different reasons.
“I was very pleased, because I knew the academics were a different caliber (from Michigan State), and it was a better choice for her,” Mrs. Grieco said.
After coming to Michigan, Grieco displayed a maturity beyond her years, stepping up to become a solid performer from freshman year on. She fought through a separated shoulder last year, the only major injury of her career. As the lone senior this year, she has been a model of consistency. She is a natural leader and was a captain last year as well. That stems from making good decisions, something that Grieco has done since childhood.
“She’s always made great decisions, she’s been able to do that ever since she was very very young,” Grieco’s mother said. “She’s able to look at situations and make clear judgments and be objective.”
An illustration of this came when Janessa was 11 and wanted to change gymnastics clubs. She had the initiative to sit down, actually tell the old coach that she was leaving and then tell him how he could improve his program. For an hour and half, she explained to him what needed to be improved – a pretty bold move coming from anybody, but from an 11-year old, it was probably unheard of.
Janessa’s maturity can also be seen in the people she is closest to, such as her grandmother and her old club coach. Strong family values have been a part of Janessa since she was born. Her immediate and extended family is very close, and this has been a source of support for her. All have served to influence her, and being with older, wiser individuals has undoubtedly had an impact on her leadership skills.
“My grandmother is probably one of my best friends,” Grieco said. “(And) Sasha Miretsky (her old club coach) is like a second father to me.”
Work ethic may have been important, but Grieco’s athletic talents are also undeniable. When she first started gymnastics at the age of eight, it took her just two weeks to get on the teenage team. Grieco also loved to play soccer at the time, but it got to the point where she had to pick one or the other. She picked gymnastics because she felt she was better at it, and also because she got bored standing around on defense. Grieco’s mother did ballet, while her father dove, so sports genes run in the family.
Superstitious to a fault, Grieco laughs as she thinks about all of the little things that she does before meets.
“I have a whole repertoire of things I need to do before a meet,” Grieco said. “(But) I don’t do anything that is unsanitary, I have good hygiene.”
Janessa is respected not only by her coaches, but also by her peers.
“You hardly ever see her down in the dumps or getting frustrated, and that’s admirable, especially in such a frustrating sport like gymnastics,” junior Elise Ray said. “She’s always the first person to ask if anyone needs help, and she’s stayed consistent with that throughout all the time I’ve known her.”
This year has been Grieco’s year to shine. Despite being a first-team All-American for the last three years, she has been largely overshadowed by the accomplishments of other gymnasts.
Janessa doesn’t have the flash of junior Calli Ryals on the floor, or the Olympic experience of Ray, and thus has not gotten the press.
“Absolutely, she does not get the kind of press when Elise is in the lineup and the other kids that you said,” Plocki said. “She’s not gotten the accolades that she probably deserves.”
Through the injuries, depth and performance problems that have plagued the Wolverines this year, Grieco has been a constant, steady force. Her approach to this year was no different from any other year, and she showed that hard work does pay off. The uneven bars were not Greico’s strongest event by any stretch of the imagination before this year, but, as with everything else, she has transformed herself into a consistent all-around performer. She is enjoying the best season of her career because of natural ability, yes, but more hard work than anything.
“Some have a ton of natural ability, and some have some natural ability and get the rest from hard work, and that’s Janessa,” Plocki said. “She has gotten to the level that she has because of her work ethic.”
She may not be the one to win the NCAA all-around, but she’s the one who’ll lead the team to the championship. And at the end of the day, that is what great leaders are measured by.
As the days count down for Grieco’s time at Michigan, nothing will change in her life. She’ll continue to work hard, quietly accomplishing much while helping others every step of the way.
Her contribution to the Wolverines will be missed on the stat sheet, but she will be missed more as a leader and friend. Everyone would agree that all that flipping of Janessa by Grandfather Ostrowski has paid off in more ways than one.