The Wolverines aren’t going to accept disappointment anymore.
Every year, the Michigan men’s gymnastics team begins with high hopes, only to watch its goals slip away in the postseason. Only in the outstanding 2007 season did the team defy the low expectations of the gymnastics world by holding a No. 1 ranking most of the year and finishing fourth at the NCAA Championships.
This season, it’s all about the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. The many intrasquad competitions in the fall, the seemingly endless workouts and conditioning and the extra pressure each Wolverine has heaped on himself at every opportunity are all designed to make the team confident in clutch situations.
“Every single year, it gets more intense in this gym,” said assistant coach Derek Croad, who has been involved with the team since the 2002-03 season.
Each gymnast has added at least one new, high-quality skill to his repertoire and the entire team has been staying at the gym longer and working out harder since the summer.
“Since I’ve been at this school, we have not collectively as a team been staying this late, working this hard,” senior Ryan McCarthy said. “Everyone’s got a really focused, positive attitude in the gym.”
Unlike the vast majority of its opponents, Michigan lost just two seniors to graduation. Michigan coach Kurt Golder said he believes his team’s experience and depth are big parts of the overall improvement he’s seen since last April.
The Wolverines also have an easier schedule than in recent years. Michigan won’t face No. 2 Oklahoma until NCAAs and only sees No. 1 Stanford once before then. Michigan lost to both teams in 2008.
The squad also has one more bye weekend than last year. The extra break could be a mixed blessing, because it could help Michigan add difficulty and recuperate from nagging injuries but could also interrupt the gymnasts’ competition rhythm. Matching up against weaker teams like Iowa and Illinois-Chicago will also give Golder the opportunity to rest his top performers and give some of his backups a chance to compete.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines have a little added motivation — at the start of April, Michigan will host the Big Ten Championships.
“It means a (championship) ring, that’s what it means!” said junior co-captain David Chan of having the meet in Ann Arbor. “No question about it. No excuses, no nothing. It means a ring.”
Big Tens have been a major stumbling block for the Wolverines recently, with Michigan finishing fourth each of the last three years. Each season, the team was still trying to recover its confidence after an unsuccessful Pacific Coast Class meet.
And except for 2007, when the Wolverines were fourth, the NCAA Championships haven’t been much better. In 2006, the team failed to make the Super Six and Michigan came in sixth in 2008.
Those lapses are part of the reason the gymnasts, captained by Chan and senior Phil Goldberg, have been pushing themselves to the brink. Intrasquads at practice were more frequent than ever. In the fall, seniors Kent Caldwell and Ryan McCarthy devised a system where each gymnast declared a goal for the week, then had just one chance to accomplish it with the entire team watching.
“You want to do something that’s a struggle for you,” sophomore Ben Baldus-Strauss said. “It pushes you every week to find something that pushes you beyond the usual. Then, when you have the extra support from the whole team, with everyone watching you, a lot of times you can do things you didn’t think you could do.”
Michigan will still face an uphill battle when it comes to filling out lineups for the rings and high bar, two events that nearly every gymnast said may be a weakness. Neither lineup has much depth. On rings, all connection bonuses have been eliminated, forcing ring men to increase their difficulty just to maintain their start values.
Despite the physical and mental difficulties ahead, the Wolverines are working to maintain an upbeat, positive attitude in the gym.
“I think we’re going to be in the best shape that we’ve ever been in, and I think we’re going to be in better shape than any other team out there,” Goldberg said. “We’re working really hard and we’re going to be in the best shape ever. Period.”