STATE COLLEGE – It takes more than a 100-year-old rivalry to break the bond between Michigan freshman Thomas Kelley and his best friend, Ohio State freshman Sean Regan.
Forty minutes after the final award had been presented at the men’s gymnastics Big Ten Championships, Penn State’s Rec Hall had nearly emptied. Tear-down crews had carted away most of the equipment and the gymnasts had filtered out.
But Regan, conspicuous in his scarlet warmups, stuck around with Kelley’s parents, waiting for the recently honored Big Ten Freshman of the Year and floor champion to return from his press conference.
Two sprained ankles kept Regan from competing at Big Tens, but he enjoyed watching his friend compete so successfully. Regan said the two have “brothers” since age four, growing up together in Libertyville, Ill. They both competed for Buffalo Grove Gymnastics before college.
“Watching him win Freshman of the Year was unbelievable,” Regan said. “I really hoped he was going to do it, but it didn’t hit me until they called him up there.”
Kelley also earned top conference honors on floor exercise. With his teammates’ cheers thundering from the stands, Kelley turned in a beautiful set, sticking nearly all his landings for a 15.50 score.
As Kelley accepted his award, the Michigan fan section put on the best vocal performance of the night, singing a spot-on rendition of “The Victors” along with the gymnasts.
“It set the precedent for other (event champs) to try and do their chanting,” Kelley said. “They don’t have a good fight song like ‘The Victors.’ They’ve got no hand motions, they’ve got nothing. So Michigan is by far the best.”
The Freshman of the Year award came at the tail end of the night, eliciting more noisy outbursts from the Michigan faithful. Traditionally, the award goes to the freshman with the highest finish in the all-around finals – but until Friday night, Kelley hadn’t competed in the all-around all season.
Illinois freshman Paul Ruggeri was the other strong candidate for the honor, having competed successfully in the all-around all season. But Kelley’s fifth-place finish was the highest of any freshman, and the tradition continued.
Even as a Buckeye, Regan felt nothing but joy for his friend’s success.
“I knew he could do it,” Regan said. “To watch him do it was even better. . He’s worked hard for where he is, and he deserves every bit of it.”
A tired, happy Kelley finally returned to the stands after his press conference and got a big hug from an equally delighted Regan.
“He’s wearing scarlet and gray, and I’m wearing maize and blue, but it doesn’t get between our friendship at all,” Kelley said. “We’re always there for each other, and it’s awesome that he’s here waiting 40 minutes. It just shows that we are best friends.”