2021 National Champions. That’s the title that Michigan Women’s Gymnastics proudly holds for their 2022 season. Did it add pressure to their season? Maybe, but it also gave the team confidence. They did it once; they could do it again.
I’ve been photographing the women’s gymnastics team on behalf of the Daily and other news outlets for the past four years, and it has become my favorite sport to photograph. Not only is capturing the motion technically difficult, which provides an exciting challenge, but the emotion and excitement is so present amongst this Michigan team that it brings life to the photos.
With the NCAA tournament upcoming, Michigan has a chance to repeat last year’s success. The team has gone 14-1 over the regular season, and scored 198.200 at the Big Ten Championship this past weekend to secure their 26th Big Ten Championship. Now, they’re heading into NCAAs with full intention of giving it everything they’ve got. I talked to seniors Abby Heiskell, Natalie Wojcik and Abby Brenner as well as junior Sierra Brooks and freshman Jacey Vore to find out more about this season and what was on their minds after winning a National Championship.
Pressure or confidence?
When asked if they felt more pressure than usual coming into this season, every gymnast I talked to said that they didn’t feel any pressure at all. After winning the National Championship last season, they felt more confident than ever before.
“We’ve had great teams all four years I’ve been here, like incredible talent, incredible leadership, incredible people. And the difference in last year was that everyone believed that we could do it,” Heiskell said. “I honestly think it gave our team that confidence we needed to start off the season on a high note and maintain that.”
Brooks, who as a sophomore had the highest all-around score of 39.775 at the National Competition last year, said “There is additional pressure but I also think with that pressure comes more confidence because after winning. We know we can do this.”
Most of the pressure the athletes face comes from themselves. As Wojcik says, “I tend to be very hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist, but I think everyone that’s in this sport is to a degree.”
Vore added: “Going into the postseason, we can keep that same mindset of just trying to be the absolute best versions of ourselves and not getting too wrapped up in what’s going on around us. Really just focusing on ourselves and how incredible we are and how much work we put in.”
Fan Support at Crisler
This season, for the first time in their collegiate careers, freshman and sophomores were able to compete in front of fans at the Crisler Center. While the team is energetic in its own right — hyping another up before, during and after their routines — the fans and the creation of a student section has added something special to their season.
“There has been nothing like this year. Oh my goodness, it is so much fun,” Brenner said. “We love having people come out … we want to build that fun environment.”
While attendance at non-revenue sports at the University is significantly less than sports like men’s basketball and football, this award-winning team has been turning heads. At the meet against Auburn and West Virginia, the team performed in front of a sold-out crowd of 12,707. And it meant a lot to the gymnasts.
“It’s been really cool to see how our attendance has also continued to get larger and larger,” Heiskell said. “Especially last weekend with Auburn and West Virginia here, it was really, really cool to see Crisler packed.”
This season has come with its fair share of challenges. At Rutgers, the team started on uneven bars. One gymnast fell during her routine and Wojcik’s grip tore right in half during her event. Determined to be an equipment malfunction, she was able to restart. Wojcik ended up with a 9.925 on that event.
As the meet continued, Junior Gabby Wilson scored a perfect 10 on floor, and then sophomore Reyna Guggino — first in the rotation — got a perfect 10 on vault. Then came Wojcik’s 10, and finally Brenner with yet another 10.
After a tough start, the team only looked forward.
Wojcik’s mindset after a mishap is “I look at each event as a new opportunity and something to get excited about rather than dwelling on a mistake or worrying about that. Because ultimately, you can only control what’s going on in the present. So you have to give all your focus and energy.”
Brooks shares a similar outlook, saying to herself in those moments, “Okay, that happened, but we need to move on … now I’m gonna go kick butt on the next event.”
During a meet against Minnesota in January, Wojcik had an off warm-up, so Vore stepped up and anchored the bars line up. She stuck her landing.
“I wasn’t super nervous, because I feel like no matter what position I’m in, I’m still doing the same routine, I’m still doing the same gymnastics,” Vore said. “I just tell myself, okay, do your normal routine, you know how to do this and the outcome will be there.”
“We don’t need things to be perfect to thrive in our environment,” Wojcik said. “This team… we take what we’re given, and we turn it into success.”
“This team… we take what we’re given, and we turn it into success.”
– Natalie Wojcik
In order for each gymnast to perform to the best of their abilities – for the team to succeed – each must be incredibly resilient.
And they need support, too. Head coach Bev Plocki, along with the other coaches, know what to say to each athlete to bring them back to the moment and get ready for the next event. And, at the same time, each gymnast has a strong inner monologue keeping them in grounded during competition. Then, there is the unwavering support from their teammates.
At the end of practice one day, senior Abby Brenner gave a pep-talk, praising each and every team member for their perseverance the week after their loss to Oklahoma. There was a sense of appreciation for such a seemingly small moment of recognition on the faces of her teammates, especially the underclassmen.
Throughout practices, the team stops their individual tasks to praise teammates on their successes every time someone sticks a landing on vault or hits a handstand on bars.
Closeness comes naturally when there are fewer than the 15 to 20 or more on many other NCAA women’s gymnastics teams. “We’re small, but we’re mighty… there’s only 13 of us, but we use it as a strength” said Brooks.
“We genuinely just have appreciation for each other. We are 100% a family,” Brenner said. “I think that just really showcases in our gymnastics and showcases in our success that we are such a close team. Now we always say we’re sisters.”
It may be an individual competition, but the team support elevates each person to a higher level.
In 2019, I photographed gymnastics for the second time, and it was the NCAA Regional Finals. I was covered in chalk, trying to figure out how to get flips in focus, when all of the photographers ran towards Michigan in the corner of Crisler. Alabama’s last bar score was about to be announced, a score that would determine if they would make it to the next round of the tournament. I watched the score come in, then the jumping began. Michigan made it to the next round. Their season motto rang in the air: “Can’t break steel”.
As Sam Peszek, former Olympian, reported on Michigan during the meet at Oklahoma a few weeks ago, she uttered a phrase that put words to the meaning of the team’s season: “They came to play.” When junior Nicoletta Koulos overheard the comment, she repeated it to the team and they immediately adopted the motto. Came to play. This team is not only resilient, energetic and supportive. They’re here to win another National Championship.
Staff photographer Madeline Hinkley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.