Last year, as a high school senior, Thomas Kelley planned to take five recruiting trips. As the Junior National all-around champion, almost every school was interested in him.
But Kelley was interested in just a few – including Michigan.
“(Michigan) was by far the best school, so I thought, ‘If I like Michigan, there’s no reason I shouldn’t go there,’ ” Kelley said.
Suffice it to say he liked what he saw. He made just one more of his scheduled recruiting trips, to Minnesota. Decidedly unimpressed, he promptly cancelled the rest and committed to the Wolverines.
So far, Kelley couldn’t be happier with his choice.
“I think we’re all like brothers now,” Kelley said of his new team. “I’ve only been here for a couple months and these are some of my closest friends I’ll ever have.”
Now, Kelley is part of arguably the best freshman class in the nation. Only Stanford’s freshmen, led by standouts Tim Gentry and Ryan Lieberman, can compare.
Though it didn’t directly affect his decision, it didn’t hurt that freshman Ben Baldus-Strauss, a longtime club rival, was also coming to Ann Arbor.
Kelley and Baldus-Strauss have known each other for more than 10 years as competitors from nearby gyms in Illinois. After years of only seeing each other at big meets, they now see each other every day – they’re they’re roommates.
“I get along with him better than I thought I would,” Baldus-Strauss said. “The longer I’m around him, the more I like him.”
Outside of competition, Kelley is a typical freshman, always ready for a laugh. But the minute a meet or even an informal event begins, he’s all business.
“I want to say he’s probably one of the most talented guys I’ve seen in the past eight years,” assistant coach Scott Vetere said. “Probably one of his best qualities is (that) he’s someone who is aggressive when he competes.”
In his first collegiate meet, the Windy City Invitational in Chicago, Kelley excelled in his best event, high bar, posting a score of 14.40 and tying Illinois freshman Paul Ruggeri for third place. Because Kelley is from nearby Libertyville, Ill., much of his extended family was there to cheer him on.
“(He) has one of the best high bar routines in the country right now,” junior Ryan McCarthy said. “His form is immaculate.”
A fair number of young gymnasts enter college with previous experience competing under pressure. But Kelley has seen more than most.
He competed at both Winter Cup and USA Championships in 2007, finishing sixth in the all-around at Winter Cup. As a member of the U. S. Junior National team, Kelley saw action in other high profile meets, like the Pacific Alliance Championships, where he competed against with powerhouse teams like China and Russia.
After all that, NCAA Championships should feel like home, especially with his teammates cheering him on.
“He represented the United States,” junior Ralph Rosso said. “There’s no reason why he can’t represent Michigan.”