Natalie Wojcik was always sure she wanted to use her extra year of eligibility due to the Covid pandemic. For her classmate Abby Heiskell, the decision was harder.
Bev Plocki made her 2022 seniors aware that there were two scholarship spots open if they wanted to return for a fifth season. Abby Brenner had entered the transfer portal early to pursue that opportunity elsewhere; she ended up at Utah. Wojcik had already asked if there would be a spot available about halfway through the 2022 season since she knew she wanted to pursue a Master’s in social work.
Heiskell felt like she was done. She wanted to graduate and go to nursing school. She came into college off of an Achilles tear suffered in her senior year of high school, having to fight her way back into health and the lineups. She clinched the Wolverines’ 2021 title with a lights-out beam performance and had a stellar 2022 highlighted by her first career perfect 10.
Plocki joked with Heiskell that she could cut floor out of her program if it meant she’d come back. After her Achilles injury, that was the event that gave Heiskell the most trouble.
“I said, all right, what do we have to do to make this deal happen?” said Plocki.
Unsure what to do in her career after graduating an academic All-American with a degree in exercise science, Heiskell went home to North Carolina to get away from the pressure and decide what would come next. In early summer 2022 she settled on the idea that if she could get accepted into the Ross School of Business’ Masters of Management program, she’d return for her fifth year.
In a monthlong logistical flurry, Heiskell applied to and was accepted to the Master’s program. She was coming back.
Plocki has been planning around COVID eligibility for years now. As soon as the NCAA announced the policy, it became part of her recruiting plan. She intentionally holds spots out of the 12 total allowed scholarships for possibly returning gymnasts.
While Plocki gives priority to her own team, her assistant coaches Maile’ana Kanewa-Hermelyn and Scott Sherman do peruse the transfer portal to keep abreast of any gymnasts looking to make a move for their extra year. One such gymnast, Penn senior McCaleigh Marr, caught their eye. Marr announced on Instagram that she would transfer to Michigan for her fifth year in 2024.
Neither Wojcik nor Heiskell heavily considered transferring.
“We’ve been a part of the Michigan family for 8, going on 9 years now,” said Heiskell. Both she and Wojcik were in the recruitment process as high school freshmen, before the NCAA changed the rules to raise the recruiting age. Heiskell couldn’t imagine spending her extra year anywhere else.
Wojcik briefly considered the transfer portal, but the allure of the No. 1 social work program in the country and the progressive success of Michigan gymnastics during her tenure kept her in Ann Arbor.
“I felt like I still had more that I wanted to accomplish here personally and with our team,” she said.
Academically, Wojcik and Heiskell are busy, but that’s not new.
Wojcik’s program requires a field placement, which means she’s doing 15 credit hours of class plus the 14 hours-per-week work in her placement on top of her athletic commitments. Doing her field placement in the Michigan athletic counseling office, Wojcik has been helping with mental health counseling for student-athletes.
“It’s definitely sparked my interest in working in athletic administration moving forward,” she said. She’s specializing in leadership and management within the program.
While Wojcik’s academic progression from a psychology degree—which similarly involved a research assistant position in a psychology lab on top of coursework—to social work is a fairly common one, Heiskell’s move from exercise science to business school is a wholly different experience.
She’s in courses with professionals already working in business, and the accelerated program packs a lot of work into one term. That makes for a lot of in-class group work with her cohort, something that has been new and exciting.
Neither Wojcik nor Heiskell have run into issues balancing gymnastics with school. Throughout the Michigan campus—whether undergrad or graduate school—athletic absences are excused. The gymnasts communicate clearly and early that they are student-athletes and may need to miss a session or two. In her small, tight-knight cohort, Heiskell has professors who are invested in her athletic career and who congratulate her after meets.
That communication is fundamental to Plocki. She instills the need to communicate early with professors in all of her athletes, and it extends into the gym as well.
While Michigan is conscientious about limiting repetitions and keeping an eye on athlete health and longevity throughout gymnasts’ careers, Plocki also stresses that she strives for a culture where her athletes feel comfortable communicating what they need in the gym.
One of Plocki’s concerns this year has been Wojcik’s durability. Her hyper-mobile knees have led to some aches and pains—though thankfully not serious injuries—over the years, so Plocki kept her off of vault and floor early in 2023. Wojcik has competed vault all season, but only added floor once in January and then consistently in February.
Heiskell, who was rehabbing her Achilles injury early in her college career, is feeling healthier than ever.
“I’m almost—knock on wood!—in my prime body,” she said.
For both, injury management and physical treatments have been the same this year as throughout their careers. Each has learned what works for her and her body, from recovery to sleep and food, and they are using those learned lessons to stay in their best health.
“At this point, it’s just autopilot,” said Heiskell. “Hydration, sleep, nutrition”—the mantra of athletic trainer Lisa Hass is now second-nature.
Since both Heiskell and Wojcik are focusing on management and leadership training, it’s no surprise that they also continue to be leaders in the gym.
“I feel really comfortable in my role and like I’m finally able to settle in and lead in the way that I want to,” said Wojcik, who feels comfortable speaking in team meetings and has hosted freshmen for dinner and held team brunches at her apartment.
Marr’s story is quite different. The Ivy League cancelled the entire 2021 season due to the ongoing pandemic and does not allow for fifth years within the conference. Marr began to consider transferring for extra eligbility during that 2021 break from competition. The idea was abstract at first until she competed at the Norman regional as an individual in 2022.
“I just realized I had so much left in the tank to do one more year,” she said. Marr feels strong and healthy and has the mental and physical energy left for more.
She entered the portal shortly after 2022 regionals. After checking with her coaches and the compliance office, the process simply involved filling out a questionnaire, which has a checkbox asking if the reason the athlete is transferring is COVID-related.
At first, some coaches thought Marr was planning to transfer for her senior season, which was never her intent. Once she cleared up that she was intending to finish her degree at Penn and transfer for the 2024 season, things went more smoothly.
Marr, whose major is communications with minors in consumer psychology and history, knew she wanted some business education before embarking on her career. She considered high-achieving academic schools with strong business programs, as well as athletic opportunities. She visited the institutions on her narrowed-down list and then started applying to Master’s programs.
The process with Michigan began with conversations between Kanewa-Hermelyn over the summer and an official visit in July. Marr met most of the team and was immediately attracted to the open and welcoming culture. Michigan offered Marr the opportunity to transfer after her official visit and gave her time to consider.
After formally accepting the offer, Marr applied to the same Ross program that Heiskell is in. She and the Michigan staff kept in touch, with Marr providing updates on gymnastics, her life generally, and the Ross application process.
Though Plocki can’t speak directly about Marr until she matriculates, it’s clear why she appealed to the Michigan staff. She spent the 2021 season without competition refocusing her energy, cleaning up her giants, and working on her health. That intentional focus paid off.
Even as a bars and beam specialist, Marr always needed to tape her ankles. After her hard work in 2021, she was able to compete in 2022 untaped for the first time. She set a 9.950 program record on beam, 9.925 on bars, and qualified to regionals, leading her record-setting Penn team to a GEC conference title on the way.
Marr has loved her time at Penn, especially competing with her younger sister Campbell, who shares her program record on beam. She also fondly remember nearly knocking over a corral screaming with her team at 2022 GECs. She’s all in with the Quakers to finish out her undergraduate career and is focused on her team now, but her hopes for future are present—she has big goals.
“I really want to get a perfect 10,” Marr said. While that big dream floats in the back of her mind, she’s more focused on the next step: putting on a Michigan leo and competing as a Wolverine.
While Marr looks forward to her Michigan tenure, Wojcik and Heiskell are reflecting back with gratitude and joy. Plocki pointed out that this group has been through the biggest highs and lows in the sport: From a season cancelled due to COVID to winning the national title the next year, it brought the team close together.
“I’m eternally grateful for Michigan,” said Heiskell, who views her fifth year as the silver lining to COVID. Her experiences coming in injured have helped her be a leader for younger classes, and she views her extra year as a bonus chance to help the next group of athletes coming in.
Wojcik’s start looked easier from the outside, but she acknowledged that it had its challenges too and was never simple. Her favorite memories revolve around her team, like running through the airport and almost missing a flight to Cancun for the first meet of her career.
Plocki spent all day writing letters to her seniors in preparation for senior night.
“It’s emotional, you know. They mean so much,” said Plocki. She takes great pride in the fact that her seniors and fifth-years have grown as humans and are ready for whatever faces them in the rest of their lives.
“These women are going to go out into the world and do really big things. I just want them to know that they now have the strength and the confidence and the independence to know that they can have everything that they want and they don’t have to sacrifice,” she said.
Wojcik knows it, too. She will miss Michigan but feels like she’s been supported as both an athlete and a human. She’s ready to face the world.
“I know that I’m ready for the next step.”
Article by Emily Minehart
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