CHAMPAIGN – No one on the Michigan men’s gymnastics team had ever experienced a meet quite like this one. From start to finish, the Wolverines knew exactly where they stood in the competition.
Unfortunately for them, that was invariably second place.
No. 6 Illinois beat No. 5 Michigan on Senior Day, 357.15-353.20.
A judge’s unexpected absence forced the teams to rotate together. Normally, the home team begins on floor exercise and the visitors on pommel horse, knowing that certain events generally yield higher scores and cause lead changes. Saturday, both teams moved in Olympic order, alternating performers.
“Personally I like it because you know exactly where you’re at,” senior co-captain Paul Woodward said. “Every rotation, you know who is winning.”
Thanks to the ponderous alternation though, the meet took more than three hours to finish, about an hour longer than normal. Meanwhile, the Illinois and Missouri women’s gymnastics teams competed simultaneously on the other side of the gym, keeping up a shrill cheer behind their blaring floor music.
Even in the enthusiastic atmosphere, Michigan’s usually irrepressible energy was absent throughout the floor exercise. But the pommel horse squad, continuing its recent trend, got the Wolverines fired up.
All six gymnasts hit on the sport’s most difficult apparatus, capped by a brilliant 14.85 set from freshman Chris Cameron. For the first time in competition, Cameron hit his hardest routine, which includes a flared handstand. Only Cameron and U.S. Senior National Team member Alexander Artemev perform the notoriously inconsistent skill in meets. Before the event, Cameron even discussed removing the skill with assistant coach Xiao Yuan.
But Yuan encouraged the freshman to keep it in his routine, and his faith was handsomely rewarded.
In the next two rotations, the judges began to appear inconsistent, seeming to overlook Illinois form breaks, especially on rings.
Sophomore David Chan snagged another vault title, matching his season-high score of 16.15 with a stuck handspring double front vault. Many of his teammates cited the moment as the highlight of the meet.
But in spite of the strong showings on each event, Michigan couldn’t make up much ground.
“They were harder on us,” Yuan said. “I could definitely see that. On vault, they should have taken medium to big deductions on either team. But they didn’t take that (on Illinois).”
The Wolverines’ energy dissipated as the competition dragged into the final events, parallel bars and high bar. The women’s meet had finished, and in between cheers from the Illinois crowd, the arena became eerily silent.
Sophomore Mel Santander turned in one of his best parallel-bars routines of the season, his graceful skills eliciting gasps of awe from the crowd. Freshman Thomas Kelley’s high-bar set was good enough to win the event (15.00). But the individual performances weren’t enough to salvage the rotations, where the Wolverines made mistakes that gave the judges ample opportunities for deductions.
The team drew more positives than negatives from the performance, though. It was the first time all season the Wolverines were able to score over 350 as a team on the road, and they learned they must tighten their routines so inconsistent judging won’t keep them from accomplishing their postseason goals.
“We were able to bond as a team on the road,” Kelley said. “We’ve been learning this whole season how to build off one another, and I think with this meet we were definitely able to (do that).”