Michigan Gymnastics entered the final rotation of the national championship final with just over a tenth lead over defending champion Oklahoma, but after two shaky beam routines produced sub-9.8000 scores, the path to the title was narrowing. When Sierra Brooks stepped up to the beam as the Wolverines’ fourth routine, she faced unimaginable pressure.
“Before I even went I was on the verge of tears because I wanted it so badly for this team and I knew we were so close,” Brooks said. “I think I knew those [previous] routines were off, but I also trusted myself.”
Her belief wasn’t misplaced: The 9.9625 she scored on beam was the first in a run of three 9.9000-plus routines that ultimately won the title for Michigan.
“Sierra brought us back, and those last three routines were lights out,” head coach Bev Plocki said.
Plocki has led the Wolverines for 32 years, taking her team to 10 national finals and finishing second twice, in 1995 and 1999. She knows what it feels like to be a wobble from victory.
“This is 32 years I’ve been waiting for this feeling,” she said.
Michigan is accustomed to winning the Big Ten conference title, having clinched it 28 times under Plocki. This year, a shaky floor rotation allowed the title to slip away. “I said to my team right then and there, ‘We’re going to trade in a Big Ten championship ring for a national championship ring this year.’ And I think that is when it really got serious,” Plocki said.
Michigan’s improvement through the season has been tangible in more ways than one, but it didn’t come without challenges. All of Michigan Athletics was completely shut down for two weeks in one memorable late-night press release in January due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 variants on campus. Discipline was key to withstanding this ordeal.
“They had to take so much on themselves outside of the gym during our pause: staying in shape, doing their conditioning, doing their treatment and rehab so that they were ready to come back when it was time,” Plocki said.
Vault has been a key event this year, but that didn’t come easily either. The Wolverines were the only squad at nationals to put up six 10.0 start values. Abby Heiskell and Reyna Guggino both added an extra half twist to their Yurchenko fulls at the last regular season meet at Maryland. Assistant coaches Scott Sherman and Maile’ana Kanewa-Hermelyn lead the event together, and Plocki credits their teamwork and diverse perspectives for improving the event throughout the year.
“At the beginning of the year we were doing big vaults, but we couldn’t get the landings,” Plocki recalled. “It was just a process, we absolutely peaked at the right time this year. We started right before the championship part of the season being able to nail those one and a halves, and that’s when people started taking notice of us, too.”
To Plocki, the 2021 Wolverines set themselves apart from past teams in their focus and their belief in one another. Going into the beam rotation after leading throughout the meet, Plocki and Kanewa-Hermelyn told the team to “take a deep breath, exhale all the nervous energy and let’s just go do what we do,” Plocki said.
After a meet-leading 9.9875 from Natalie Wojcik in the fifth spot on beam, the Wolverines faced a nervous wait for the final score after Heiskell’s hit routine. With just the final two scores to come in, Heiskell’s and Olivia Trautman’s on floor, Michigan and Oklahoma were tied. Trautman’s number came in first, so the Wolverines knew the number they needed to top.
“We saw [her score] and we just stood there waiting to see the team score change,” Brooks said. “So much was racing through our heads. We talked about this for so long, and it was just ‘Oh my god, it’s actually happening, oh my god, the meet’s over. We’re national champions.’”
It’ll take a little time for the historic win to set in for Plocki. “I’m so happy and I’m so proud and I still can’t believe it. I have to pinch myself.”
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