Most freshmen spend their first year at Michigan adjusting to a college lifestyle, meeting new friends and navigating their way through the campus.
Annette Miele and Sachi Sugiyama have been asked to do a little more — uphold the legacy of the Michigan women’s gymnastics program.
In a season where injuries have already ravaged their senior-less team, the freshman duo has stepped up at a time when the team needs it most. The pair’s continued success this year will be crucial in helping the Wolverines raise a sixth-consecutive Big Ten Championship banner.
Miele, a native of Easton, Penn., was recruited out of the Parkettes National Gymnastics Training Center. Before coming to Michigan, she was a three-time USA Visa Championship qualifier and was named to the U.S. Junior National Team in 2008. She made her collegiate debut on the balance beam against Ohio State, and she has competed in the all-around twice already this season.
“I knew I wanted to come here once I stepped foot in this gym,” Miele said. “Right away, I was like, ‘This is where I want to be.’ Then I hung out with the team after practice, and it all just felt right. When I finally committed, I was like, ‘I’m going to be a Michigan athlete.’ It was awesome.”
Her partner-in-crime, Sugiyama, hails from Keller, Texas, where she trained at Top Flight Gymnastics. In 2010, Sugiyama placed sixth in the all-around competition at the Junior Olympic National Championships. In her collegiate debut, she tied for second in two of three events against the Buckeyes. Since then, Sugiyama has been an all-arounder in all but one of this season’s competitions.
“It never struck me that my scores would count so much and they would depend on me as much as they do during this season,” Sugiyama said. “It’s a good feeling.”
With only seven Wolverines available to compete, the opportunity for the pair to shine presented itself early in the season. A season-ending Achilles tendon injury to junior Natalie Beilstein and a recent ankle injury to junior Brittnee Martinez has forced the entire team to strengthen its performance. In particular, such injuries have allowed Miele and Sugiyama to showcase their talents in more events. Through injuries and inexperience, the freshmen’s scores have helped keep Michigan one of the most competitive teams in the nation.
“I definitely look at myself and think, ‘I have to step up’,” Miele said. “I know that I need to work harder for my team, because if we want to succeed in the end, then every person counts, including me.”
The duo has been particularly impressive lately, as its team makes a final push before heading into the postseason. Together, they have shattered a total of nine career-bests in the past four weeks. In a return to her home state, Miele recorded two personal-high scores on bars and beam, and she finished the night with her top all-around score of the year. At the same meet against Penn State, Sugiyama finished with record scores on bars and floor, along with a career best for the all-around as well.
“Annette came in with a little bit of a back problem, so she started a little bit slower,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “But in the last couple of meets she has been getting back to where we need her to be.
“I think (Sachi) has steadily improved throughout the season. She’s getting more confident, competing more aggressively, and (she) has been a really important part of our season.”
The two athletes have quickly forged a powerful friendship as they support each other on and off the mats. Through similar experiences, the freshmen have bonded together while assisting each other settle into their new careers as collegiate student-athletes. Miele and Sugiyama both admit that they constantly calm each other down before and during competitons, which helps hide their lack of experience.
“I wouldn’t be able to be the person I am today without (Annette) supporting me every step of the way,” Sugiyama said. “Since there’s only two of us, we just got so close. I can’t imagine being a freshman without her.”
Both Miele and Sugiyama are looking forward to contributing to the team’s postseason, and they believe their team is good enough to win another Big Ten title and make their second-consecutive appearance in the NCAA’s Super Six. Beyond this season, though, the future is bright for the duo. Plocki is confident both Wolverines will be All-Americans in their respective events one day, but for now, the freshmen have their eyes set on something more important — championship rings.