After 32 Years, Bev Plocki Finally Got Her National Title. And She’s Not Finished Yet.

It’s April 17, 2021. In Fort Worth, Texas, the NCAA team final is about to come to an end. In the beam corner of the arena, the atmosphere is electric. The Wolverines hold hands and jump up and down with trepidation as they await the final score. When it’s flashed on the big screens, the whole arena explodes. Michigan has just won its first ever national title.

In the middle of her elated team, a woman is struggling to control her emotions. She puts her hands over her head, wipes off her tears, hugs everyone around her and kisses the trophy with passion.

Bev Plocki has seen it all. In her 32nd season as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, she’s taken the program from an all-time low in 1989 to becoming the only seventh team in NCAA history to ever win a national title. 

In the moment of victory, a multitude of contrasting emotions and memories struck her all together. “It was a rush of general emotion, everybody was crying, but it was really such a sense of relief that finally we broke through this glass ceiling and were able to accomplish this unbelievable feat,” Plocki recalled.

“But very quickly I started rewinding over my career,” she added. “I was thinking about how many times I had teams that were so close and all of the alumni throughout all of the 32 years. This national championship was the result of a 32-year journey at the University of Michigan and all of the athletes that had come before and had paved the way for us to be where we were.”

Plocki was only 23 years old when she inherited the Michigan program in 1990. An NCAA gymnast herself—at Alabama first, then at West Virginia—she’d just finished her masters degree in sports management and administration when she applied for the job. “I feel like it kind of just ended up happening,” Plocki explained. “It wasn’t like I planned it all the way through, thinking, ‘I want to be a collegiate gymnastics coach.’ It was just like, ‘Hey, these [positions] are available. Let me apply and see what happens,’ and I ended up at the University of Michigan.”

The beginning of Plocki’s career in Ann Arbor was difficult. The year before she took over, the team had finished last in the Big Ten with a 2-19 overall record and a winless 0-13 in its own conference. “Before I came to Michigan, the administration under the previous athletics director really didn’t support [women’s gymnastics]—many universities at the time were not supporting women’s programs the way that they should have,” Plocki said. “The good news for me was that after I was hired, I was in a very transitional time when they really started to put more support into women’s athletics.”

“One of the things I’m most proud of was that we literally started with next to nothing, and we have earned every single thing that we’ve got,” she added. “Nobody opened up the purse strings and said, ‘Hey, here’s the silver spoon, go and do what you need to do.’ We fought and worked and scrapped and earned our place to where we’re now, where we’re supported really well.”

In her first years at Michigan, Plocki began to build the program from the bottom up, instilling organization and order into the training sessions, creating a team culture and a winning mentality. While some of the novelties she introduced—such as dividing the team into groups in training and having 45-minute sessions per apparatus—appear quite basic nowadays, the program didn’t possess any of that prior. “I remember walking into the gym and meeting with my team for the first time and asking them, ‘When is the last time that you guys worked out?’” Plocki recalled. “And one of the sophomores raised her hand and said, ‘At Big Tens last year.’ And I was like, ‘Big Tens was in March—we’re in September, and you guys haven’t trained!’”

Just three years later Plocki led the Wolverines to their first Big Ten conference title, an accomplishment that is still one of the proudest moments of her career. “Winning our first Big Ten championship was a really big deal, it was the year that Penn State came into the Big Ten conference,” she explained. “Penn State had dominated the Atlantic 10 conference—they had won the Atlantic 10 every year—they were the better team on paper, and we were able to win that Big Ten championship.”

That same year Plocki welcomed Beth Wymer to Michigan, a gymnast who was ultimately a game changer for the program. “She was an elite-level athlete who as a recruit was far beyond the level of our program at that time,” Plocki said. “I said to her, ‘Beth, we’re going to do great things here. I know that you can’t see it today, but this is the University of Michigan and we’re going to have the support, the resources, the right focus, the work ethics. You could go to Utah or elsewhere, you could be another All-American on their wall, another national champion in the end, but if you come to Michigan, you can be the first All-American, the first national champion and nobody else will ever be able to do that again.’ She liked that idea, she came to Michigan and that’s exactly what she did.”

Wymer went on to have an exceptional career in Ann Arbor. She won the Big Ten conference all-around title all four years and helped the Wolverines win the conference team title all four seasons as well. She won three NCAA national titles on the uneven bars and posted the first perfect 10.0 on vault in Michigan and Big Ten history.

“Beth Wymer single-handedly put us on the national map,” Plocki said. 

After Wymer, Plocki coached four other gymnasts to a total of nine individual NCAA national titles. Olympian Elise Ray won an all-around title (2001), as well as one on beam (2002) and bars (2004). Kylee Botterman became the 2011 NCAA all-around champion, and two years later Joanna Sampson won the floor title, becoming the first Wolverine to ever score a perfect 10.0 on floor in the postseason. Most recently, current senior Natalie Wojcik won the beam title as a freshman in 2019.

While Plocki isn’t opposed to recruiting big elite names, though, her legacy is founded upon finding athletes who still have a passion for gymnastics by the time they arrive in college. “Obviously we’re looking for talent … and I’m certainly not opposed to recruiting an Elise Ray… But you also have to be very careful because at that level with all the skills they’re doing, some of their bodies are broken, some of them just don’t have a passion for the sport anymore,” Plocki said. “So one of the things that is really important to us is that passion for gymnastics and the desire to continue to learn and grow and get better every day in the gym.”

Within the Michigan team, gymnasts have immense respect for Plocki for what she does for them inside and outside of the gym. For senior Abby Brenner, Plocki’s caring attitude was a crucial factor in her choice to attend Michigan. “I wasn’t going to be in-state … and neither of my parents was going to be there, so knowing that I was in good hands and that I was going to have a coach that was going to do absolutely anything for me inside of the gym and outside of the gym was huge,” she said.

“I like to call her a mama bear because she will do absolutely anything and everything for us and for our team to get the recognition that we deserve as a program,” Brenner added. “Even this year, we had a little bit of difficulty trying to figure out where to hang our banner in [the Crisler Center], and her fighting for everything for us is just the true nature of who she is as a coach.”

“She says she has an open-door policy, and she totally does,” assistant coach Maile’Ana Kanewa-Hermelyn added. “She encourages the girls to come to her, to talk to her, to vent if they need to about school or their lives or whatever. She’s there for them, and I think they really recognize that. You can also tell by how many of our alumnae come back year after year.”

Plocki, moreover, is not there just for her gymnasts but for the members of her staff, too. Kanewa-Hermelyn—a 2016 Oklahoma graduate who’s entering her fourth season at Michigan in 2022—in particular feels that Plocki is always keen to help her learn and grow as a coach. “Something I really love about Bev is that I can ask her any question, big or small, about the program or the NCAA or gymnastics in general, and she will always listen to me and answer it to help me learn and grow,” she explained. “If I knock on the door and she’s on a conference call, she’s like, ‘Come, come, listen.’ She’s very inviting as far as helping me in my journey learning.”

In her style of coaching, Plocki took inspiration from two of her former coaches: her club coach, the late Danny Warbutton, and former West Virginia head coach Linda Burdette-Good. 

From Burdette-Good, Plocki learned that it was possible to build a winning program while fostering a caring and family-oriented atmosphere within the team. “She showed me that you can have a competitive program and you can be championship quality but still have a big-picture mentality when it comes to doing right by the athletes, considering their long-term best interest,” Plocki said. “It took me 32 years to do it, but I’m very proud of the fact that we have a program where we really take good care of our athletes.”

Plocki’s other mentor, Warbutton, taught her the importance of personal and professional development during every step of her career. “He instilled in me the philosophy that you have to continue to pay attention to professional development because the moment you think you know everything, you’re done,” Plocki said. “If you don’t evolve and grapple with it, it’s going to leave you behind. You can never know everything—there’s always a new technique, there’s always a new way, there’s more than one right way to do the same thing.”

One aspect Plocki feels she improved on over the years is her empathy toward her athletes. “When I very first started at 23 years old, I felt like I had to separate myself; I couldn’t be the athletes’ friend,” Plocki said. “As I have aged, I still have the same big-picture perspective, but … I have grown more empathetic to the individual athletes’ needs.”

That extra level of empathy, together with a deeper understanding of each team member’s personality and individuality, was instrumental to Michigan’s special bond in 2021, which, according to the coaches, paved the way for the Wolverines’ victory at nationals. “Last year we were all one, we were a cohesive unit, and that really does contribute to success,” Kanewa-Hermelyn said.

There was a lot going on at the beginning of the year, Plocki elaborated, as a result of the pandemic, social justice issues and the presidential election. As a result, the team took the time to sit down, listen and talk to each other to an extent they’d never done before. “We talked a lot about listening with the intent to understand and not just listening to respond,” Plocki explained. “There was so much going on, but it gave us the opportunity to get to know each other at a much deeper level than before. It gave us the time to really focus on some of the other things that ended up being very important and bonding us together. That led to our belief in each other.”

“We were passionate about what we were doing, we were training hard, we believed in each other and we got to consider it a privilege to be in Fort Worth, Texas, to compete at a national championship,” she added.

What was so special about that day in the team final in Fort Worth? “There’s always a nervous energy, but this year was different. What I saw was not as much nervous energy as excitement,” Plocki said. “It was that adrenaline, it was excitement energy. We were competing within our team for each other, and we were having so much fun doing it. I think that that radiated through the whole arena.”

“It was our day, nothing could go wrong for us,” Brenner added. “It was so much fun to watch and to be a part of.”

For the gymnasts, winning the national title was not just special in itself, but it was a way of recognizing Plocki for all her hard work and sacrifices over her 32 years at Michigan. “It’s a testament to her dedication to this program—she built it from the ground up when she got to Michigan,” Wojcik said. “Just to know that over time, all of her hard work, all of the teams that came before us and then ultimately our team’s hard work paid off, and to be able to share it with her was just incredible.”

“Something cool that I’ve learned is that her coaching position at Michigan was her first and only real job,” she added. “But she doesn’t speak of it as something that is a burden, like, ‘Oh, I graduated college and got stuck here.’ It’s something she puts a lot of pride in, and it just shows her loyalty and dedication to this program. That’s something that’s definitely really inspiring.”

The victory, moreover, was a celebration of all the Michigan gymnasts who Plocki’s coached during her 32 years at the head of the program. “They paved the way for us and where we are,” Brenner said. “They had a very small gym before us. They were the ones who fought to get us to compete in Crisler. They were the ones who fought for money and for aid and for the entire program… It was so good to see them be so happy and proud for us and for us to be a part of that.”

The bond that all alumnae have and their frequent visits to the gym are evidence of the strong family culture that Plocki managed to create, as well as of the respect that these women continue to have for their former coach long after graduation. 

At the tailgate for the celebration of the national title in the fall, Kanewa-Hermelyn recalled, several alumnae recounted the impact Plocki had on their career in and out of the gym. “They were like, ‘Bev helped me to do this, Bev pushed me to do this. She knew I was destined for greatness, and she fostered that and pulled it out of me,’” Kanewa-Hermelyn said. “That really says something of her character. ”

For Plocki herself, all her gratitude goes to the Michigan athletic department, which took a chance on her while she was still very young, and to every one of the athletes she’s coached over the years. “Michigan gave me the opportunity. I grew as a coach, Michigan grew as a program,” Plocki said. “I don’t profess to have said I did everything right, but this is the only place I’ve ever been. So I am Michigan, and Michigan is me. We grew up together.”

Every athlete she’s ever coached has a special place in her heart. “Literally every single athlete that has come through this program, I owe them a debt of gratitude to,” Plocki said. “I coached them, but they also taught me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

And now, after all the joy, the tears and the emotions, with that elusive national title finally in her hands, what does the future hold for Bev Plocki? The Michigan head coach has no hesitation. “I’m just that much more excited to see if we can do it again.”

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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