For some gymnasts, it’s a good sign when the crowd goes wild after pulling off a particular skill.
But when junior Mel Santander is in perfect form, he often inspires an awed, breathless silence. His graceful lines are unmistakable as he pulls off skills that seem physically impossible. And the crowd seems almost afraid to move, as if it might somehow spoil the perfection.
“He has fantastic basics and gorgeous lines,” senior Scott Bregman said. “When he’s able to hold onto both of those when he does hard skills, he makes some of the most difficult things look easy and beautiful. … You watch it and you go, ‘That’s pure. That’s what you want it to look like.’ ”
And to succeed, all Santander has to do is get out of his own way. Santander, who was voted Michigan’s MVP by his teammates last season, tends to put unreasonable pressure on himself. That’s usually the case at the annual Winter Cup competition in February. Until this year, Santander had bowed out on the first night of competition.
This season, Santander wanted to make the second day so much that he stressed himself out of a great performance on the first night. But he still qualified for the second round — where, all of a sudden, the pressure was off.
“It felt like another, ‘Oh, here’s another year I’m not going to make second day again,’ ” Santander said. “Kind of depressing. But after knowing that I made second day, it kind of made me realize that I was sort of good. I was decent. Then, second day, I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to show everybody what I can do.”
On that second day of competition, he proved he was more than simply decent. Among the best gymnasts in the country, Santander finished fifth on pommel horse.
Santander’s development hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. Michigan assistant coach Derek Croad has seen dramatic changes in Santander since his freshman year, when Santander was one of the most reserved athletes the Michigan men’s gymnastics team had ever seen. On his recruiting trip, he was so shy that he sometimes didn’t even respond to questions.
Now Santander has become even more motivated in the gym and has enjoyed himself outside the sport, too.
“When it comes to gym, I have not seen him more intense than this year, how concentrated he is at what he does, how focused he is on any corrections,” Croad said. “You really can’t see him getting distracted at all. When he started off, he could have been easily distracted. … He’s matured into a very good young man and a good athlete.”
And he has come out of his shell. From being the kid who didn’t speak up, he’s become almost a chatterbox who amazes his teammates with his side talent of dancing. Bregman said he often tiptoes past Santander’s room in hopes of catching his housemate practicing new moves.
The mental pressure of the sport might still be problematic for the junior. But as the postseason approaches, the Southborough, Mass., native’s physical prowess could make up for it. Against Illinois, he hit his most difficult high bar routine for the first time. In Michigan’s recent win in Columbus, he hit four of his five sets, including his trademark routines on pommel horse and parallel bars.
He’s capable of competing in the all-around along with sophomores Chris Cameron and Thomas Kelley, and Santander’s scores will be a key part of Michigan’s Big Ten title run two weekends from now.
“Mel used to be the guy where he got up and you had no freaking clue what was going to happen,” Croad said. “You just sat there and prayed to God that he would stay on. Now, it’s the opposite. We know he’s going to hit.”