Michigan men’s gymnastics coach Kurt Golder was running out of time.
Just an hour before his team’s flight left for the 2011 Big Ten Championship, Golder was thrown a curveball: one of his gymnasts was sick and unable to compete, leaving him short a man for the meet. He went through the entire roster before his eyes finally landed on one name, and a walk-on at that: Matt Freeman.
Four years ago, as a freshman, Freeman had only competed in two meets during the regular season and his scores weren’t anything special. On this weekend, though, Golder couldn’t accept any non-special scores — especially in a season where Big Ten competition was at an all-time high. One slip-up could be the difference between first place and second. Golder needed someone who could deliver a strong performance. With a potential Big Ten Championship on the line, the decision was made.
Freeman had an hour to pack his things. His team needed him.
He was having a bizarre day. Just hours earlier, he was expecting to watch his team compete at the Big Ten Championship from his couch. Now, he was on the roster presumably as a back-up. It was on the bus ride to the meet that he learned the truth: he wasn’t going as a back-up, but instead would be competing.
“It got a lot scarier,” Freeman said with a laugh.
Freeman’s entire season played out in his mind. He had only competed twice, and his most recent rings performance at Arizona State ended poorly. What was coach thinking, giving him of all people, a chance to compete at the Big Ten Championship?
“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” Freeman said.
It wasn’t just an ordinary meet. Each movement was scrutinized now more than ever. Freeman earned a 14.55 on rings, an impressive score and, at the time, a career-best for the freshman. Michigan would finish second in the meet, and Freeman would find his role.
One word comes to Golder’s mind when he describes the current senior co-captain Matt Freeman: dependable.
“He probably has one of the higher hit-percentages of all the guys on our team,” Golder said.
In a sport of constant scrutiny, where one slip-up can result in a major point deduction, dependability is everything. A high hit-percentage is a sign not of consistent excellence but rather of talent.
Now, Freeman regularly competes in two of the most difficult events in men’s gymnastics — pommel horse and still rings — where a strong performance can result in major points.
During Freeman’s sophomore year, he didn’t suffer a single major deduction in a pommel horse routine all season. On pommel horse, it’s not uncommon for even the best to slip off the horse every once in a while. But for Freeman, it’s a rarity.
This season, Freeman has competed in every meet on both pommel horse and rings, consistently scoring well. He also competed on the high bar — an event he seldom competes in. In a critical situation yet again, Freeman proved dependable even in a different setting. He scored a career-high 14.25 against Nebraska.
Dependability is a key component of leadership and of being a good teammate. And Freeman isn’t just reliable on the mat, but also outside of the gym. If someone needs a ride to Meijer, he’ll drive them. If they need to be dropped off at the airport, he’ll take them. If they need a place to stay on Thanksgiving, his house becomes theirs.
“He’s been the most dependable, most giving guy,” Golder said. “Everybody knows that Matt has their back.”
When he first joined the team, Freeman didn’t know if he belonged. It’s hard to stand out in an incoming class of 11 freshmen, especially when you’re a walk-on. Freeman wasn’t the best at any particular event, so he decided that instead of trying to stand out, he’d try to fill in and help the team wherever he could.
“I decided whatever event we needed, I’d work on, and that was (pommel) horse and rings,” Freeman said.
He didn’t make his competitive debut until the end of his freshman season against Penn State, though. He got one shot: the rings. His 13.90 score wasn’t stellar, but it was a start, especially in an event that he wasn’t used to.
“He’s extremely hard-working, if not the most hard-working person on our team,” said Freeman’s co-captain Syque Caesar. “He came in his freshman year a little bit out of shape and then worked his way through the entire season and didn’t compete a lot, but he always kept himself ready.”
But nothing could’ve prepared him for his jump to the lineup.
The story of walk-on-turned-captain is not uncommon in Michigan athletics. Remember Jordan Kovacs, a safety on the football team? In the case of the gymnastics team, both of its current captains are walk-ons.
Freeman isn’t like most captains, though. His lead-by-example style trumps the typical, verbal-leadership rout.
Freeman’s work ethic helped him earn his spot as a captain. And now Freeman expects his team to work just as hard. Together, he and Caesar hope that the hard work they put in to earn their spots as captains trickles down to the rest of the team.
“Matt’s just a no crap kind of guy,” Caesar said. “Everyone has to be very independent and on their own, but at the same time, also be very helpful to others and be there for other people. Matt’s that kind of guy. He’s a very straight-up kind of guy.”
It’s the way Freeman carries himself both in and out of the gym that reminds Golder of a standard set for Michigan’s student-athletes a long time ago — a phrase echoed throughout all Michigan athletics.
“He’d fit in well with Bo Schembecherler’s, ‘The Team. The Team. The Team,’ ” Golder said.
It takes a lot to stand out on a team with two Olympians. It takes a lot for someone to deliver consistent performances that push the team ahead of the competition. And it takes a lot to lead a team to a perfect season.
But Matt Freeman has found a way to do just that.
In his final meet of the regular season, Freeman found himself back where he started: on the rings. He held a handstand, swung his body downward before releasing his grip on the rings and doing a flip through the air. He then found his feet planted on the floor.
For a moment, all of Crisler Arena held its breath. Freeman took a moment before saluting the judges. In the background, the crowd rose to its feet. His teammates celebrated on the sideline. The judge raised a small green flag, signaling that Freeman has stuck his landing, giving him an added .20 points to his routine. His score lit up on the jumbotron: 15.15, a new career best and enough to win the individual event title.
Freeman’s journey has been similar to his rings routine. There have been ups, downs and a couple of swings, but he always finds his feet firmly planted on the floor.