Junior Reema Zakharia is becoming a stronger asset for the No. 3 women’s gymnastics team.
Typically a floor exercise specialist, Zakharia competed in three events for just the second time in her career at the last home meet against Iowa on Feb. 2. To have her ready to go on vault and beam will add a more seasoned competitor to the mix and motivate her teammates to work even harder.
“It was great doing three events,” Zakharia said. “I’m not 100-percent satisfied with my performance, but it’s just driving me to work even harder in the gym and consistently get in the other lineups.”
The Wolverines (4-1 Big Ten, 8-1 overall) have shown surprising depth and persistence from last season, which was chock-full of injuries and void of any seniors.
“There’s definitely a very different team dynamic,” Zakharia said. “I think that the upperclassmen really show a different sense of leadership, and I mean that with every single individual.
“It’s not just one person, but rather, we’re all working together, the juniors and seniors, to show the underclassmen the ropes and get them pumped up and motivated to win.”
Despite an impressive start to the first half of the season, Michigan has yet to peak, according to coach Bev Plocki. The Wolverines still have upgrades planned, and a top-six lineup to finalize. They are utilizing a new strategy of switching up the lineups to keep veterans fresh and injury-free and to give their teammates the opportunity to gain valuable meet experience.
“Our team score could be higher if we did X, Y and Z,” Plocki said. “That’s a good thing. It keeps a team motivated, hungry, and they work harder in the gym as a result.”
As a leader on the team, Zakharia has experienced the highs and lows of Michigan gymnastics. During her freshmen year, she was a member of the team that won the Big Ten Championship and qualified for the Super Six – the most prestigious competition in women’s collegiate gymnastics. Last year, Zakharia competed on a team that failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships and ended a five-year winning streak at the Big Ten Championships.
Hailing from the same gym as 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Danell Leyva, the Miami native is one of the best floor-exercise workers in the nation. Her freshman year, Zakharia was the NCAA regional runner-up on floor.
This year, as an upperclassman, Zakharia has taken on more responsibilities and is more focused on refining the details of her routines.
“I’m really just going to focus on consistency and making sure that you can’t take off on any of the landings, and just being held accountable on the other two events that I’m not really consistently in the lineup on,” Zakharia said.
Her strategy has been working. Earlier this year, she scored a career-best 9.925 on floor against Illinois and was named Big Ten Co-Event Specialist of the Week.
Zakharia made up her own floor routine that features exciting choreography and an enormous running double-front opening pass. Her background in dance radiates in her high-energy routine and brings out her upbeat personality.
“Training is going well,” Zakharia said. “The girls are all working hard. We’re just trying to really build our confidence even more and hit routine after routine.”
Against the Hawkeyes, Zakharia hit all of her routines. On vault, she upgraded her front-handspring pike from the previous year to a front-handspring pike with a half twist. On beam, she executed a clean set under pressure after the Michigan gymnast competing prior to her fell. Her routine featured a front-tuck-to-back-tuck flight series and a front full-twisting dismount. Zakharia’s front tumbling is highlighted in her beam and floor routines. On floor, she tied for fourth with a 9.825.
The junior spent the previous week rehabbing her leg and did not compete in the most recent meet against Ohio State.
“I wouldn’t call it an injury, but we have to monitor it and be careful going forward,” Plocki said. “I would expect to see her in and out of the lineup depending on where we feel like we need to rest her.”
Zakharia is excited to return to the lineup this Saturday when the Wolverines go up against Penn State.
“Every meet has the same amount of pressure,” Zakharia said. “Whether you are competing in conference or against the Southeastern Conference, there are great gymnasts out there so you always just want to put out your best ‘A’ game.”
Zakharia and the Wolverines have proven that they can handle the pressure of being on top. They’ve been ranked in the top three every week this season and twice have been ranked No. 1.
“I just want my team to get back out there and get the Big Ten Championship title back like we deserve,” Zakharia said. “I definitely want to head back to the Super Six again, end up on the podium and go after that national championship because I really think we are contenders.”