The college recruiting process is notably stressful and competitive, resulting in gymnasts making decisions fast. The best athletes in the country usually announce their commitment to their dream school within the first six months of becoming eligible at the end of their sophomore year of high school.
Paige Thaxton was not one of them. The 5-star recruit in the class of 2022 preferred to wait to commit until a few weeks ago—less than a month before the beginning of the signing period.
The long wait was a conscious choice. “I waited and took my time because I wanted to do some exploring for myself,” Thaxton revealed. “Considering that I’m going to be at that college for the next four or five years, I wanted to make sure it was the perfect fit and that I would be happy there.”
As a Michigan native, Thaxton grew up a Wolverine fan, but it was only after going on an official visit and talking to the coaches and her future teammates in person that she became convinced she wanted to call Ann Arbor home. “Although I’ve always been a Michigan fan, I found that the connections I made with the coaches and team felt like family,” she said. “It truly felt like the place I am meant to be at and where I will thrive the best…Ultimately, I chose Michigan because it felt right.”
For Thaxton, key to Michigan’s family feeling is the sound relationship the coaches have among themselves and with the student-athletes. Bev Plocki, Scott Sherman and Maile’Ana Kanewa-Hermelyn are “very close, so that makes it easy to bounce ideas off one another…[They] really promote communication between themselves and their athletes,” Thaxton said. “This creates an open atmosphere for the team, which is why they are so successful.”
Thaxton believes that Michigan’s first NCAA title in April reflected the strong bond between coaches and gymnasts, and she acknowledges that it upped her interest. “That victory only increased my respect for Michigan Gymnastics and my interest to be part of a winning team,” she explained. “The victory also showed me all the hard work that’s put in and the closeness the team has with each other and the staff.”
Although Thaxton’s commitment to Michigan came later than most, it didn’t scare her because she knows that great things don’t come easy nor fast. On top of her share of injuries, which most gymnasts endure, she also fell ill with mononucleosis just as her career was taking off, preventing her from training for a long time.
Her motivation, however, didn’t waver. “While I had to take time off physically, mentally I was still in the gym practicing on getting better,” she said. “My will to continue my gymnastics only grew stronger seeing my teammates practice and knowing in my mind [that] I [could] get back better than ever.”
Given her past experiences, it’s then perhaps not a coincidence that Thaxton’s favorite moment of her career to date is winning the bar title at nationals this year after a difficult year and an underwhelming competition. “After coming back from COVID, having time off and an unanticipated fall on vault, I was able to turn my meet around and win bars,” she said proudly. “I mentally focused, put my last event behind me and challenged myself.”
While Thaxton hopes to fulfil some further dreams in her final year of club gymnastics—including scoring a 39.000 all around, qualifying to the Nastia Liukin Cup and winning another national title—the magnitude of her accomplishments is starting to sink in.
“If I could speak to my younger self, I would tell her, ‘You finally made it,’” Thaxton said. “’Thank you for never giving up and pushing yourself when times were tough. All the blood, sweat and tears have paid off. You finally have achieved one of your dreams of becoming a college gymnast at one of the top universities both in academics and athletics.’”
“While you may not know what you’re in for, it will be all worth it in the end,” she added. “With that being said, there is still more work to do.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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