Confidence, calm carried Michigan to women's gymnastics national title

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Apr. 20—There are so many photos that captured Michigan women's gymnastics coach Bev Plocki celebrating the program's first national championship, but there is one, with her left arm holding the national championship trophy close to her, that says so much.

With a black mask covering most of her face, only Plocki's eyes could be seen. They expressed everything.

"The feelings are all stirred up," Plocki said, describing that captured moment. "It's one part relief, two parts just joy and exhilaration."

Plocki, in 32 seasons coaching the Wolverines, has taken the program to runner-up finishes in the NCAA championships twice. Overall, she's had six top-five finishes, and her 24 Big Ten titles are the most by any coach in any sport in the conference.

The Wolverines took over the lead in the NCAA championships last Friday and never relinquished it in a tight competition with three other finalists — Oklahoma, Utah and Florida — in the final round. Michigan's Abby Heiskell clinched the title with a 9.9250 on the beam. The Wolverines finished with a score of 198.2500, just ahead of Oklahoma at 198.1625.

Sierra Brooks, Natalie Wojcik and Heiskell were Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the all-around competition.

"When Abby Heiskel finishes the (beam) routine, salutes the judges, she picks up her mask, and she's trying to walk off the stage, and her legs collapsed twice on the way — you know you have left it all out there," Plocki said in a telephone interview. "It was incredible. I've never experienced anything like it. Ever."

The week before Michigan left for Fort Worth, Texas, to compete for the national title, the team had been practicing particularly well. At the end of the last practice, Plocki addressed her team as she typically does, but this time, she made clear she believed them to be the very best in the country.

"I said, 'Do you guys have any idea how good you are?' And they all got dead silent and sort of stared at me," Plocki said. "And I said, 'I'm serious. Do you have any idea how unbelievably good you are? I have been walking around watching you practice these last couple of days. Our practices have been lights out. I have watched 9.9-plus beam routine after beam routine. I've seen you guys digging in, working so hard on floor, on our landings. I've seen the improvement. I'm watching the handstands, and the stuck dismounts on bars, I'm watching the vault rotation where we're sticking more vaults than we're not sticking. We're the only team in the country doing six 10.0 start-value vaults.

"'If you guys could just go to the national championship, you don't have to try harder. All you have to do is be as good as you are when I watch you in here every single day, and I promise you, you are the team to beat.' I really think they felt a sense of confidence in themselves. People have said, 'Were they nervous? How do you handle the nerves?' I said, really what I witnessed from my team was more a sense of excitement and anticipation moreso than nerves."

The Wolverines carried themselves with confidence and calm.

"Our team has talked about this for so long," Brooks, a sophomore, said after the event on ABC. "We were so eager to be out there knowing we could do it, and we did it. We're national champions and that's just crazy."

It has been a challenging year globally dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For Plocki, it was about trying to get her athletes to understand that while this certainly wasn't a normal college experience, there could still be so much to gain. She tried hard to explain that despite going through COVID testing six days a week, they still had to essentially isolate. Initially, they would practice three gymnasts at a time until they could finally practice as a team.

Plocki presented them with an option: Dwell on everything taken away from them during this pandemic, or be grateful for having the opportunity to practice and compete. She told them they had more than most and the best option was to choose to be grateful.

"I think it did create a lot more of a focus," Plocki said. "There weren't some of the other distractions. They focused on school, they focused on looking forward to coming to the gym, and then we got to start competing and traveling. We had a lot of together time, so our team was closer than we've ever been at a deeper level, and I think through our practices and that bond we built during this year, they developed a stronger investment in what we were doing and a trust in each other and all of those things I think that's what led us to where we ended up.

"A very difficult year to say the least, but always trying to find the silver lining. And isn't it actually completely amazing when the reward comes at the end of all that and you have the opportunity to look back and say, 'All that was worth it.'"

Not surprisingly, Plocki received hundreds of text messages and emails, and by Monday she had nearly replied to them all.

"Everybody knows the women's gymnastics team at Michigan, yeah, they're really good, but when you do something like this, it's like, 'Oh, no, they're like really good,'" Plocki said. "It's things like Serena Williams' husband (Alexis Ohanian) tweeted that his daughter was watching the competition and saw Sierra doing her beam routine and said, 'Daddy, look that's me'. Everything else that's going on in the world, do you know what that means to a Sierra Brooks to have Serena Williams' daughter identifying with her as, I could do that someday? That's amazing. I just hope this does wonders for our fan base. I just feel like we just broke through another really large barrier."

Plocki is fiercely competitive and determined to keep Michigan atop the college gymnastics world. She has a talented group of freshmen coming in, and loses little from this current team.

"I feel this is the beginning of another era," Plocki said.

And perhaps this championship will attract new fans to the sport.

"The community has been through all of this COVID, too," Plocki said. "If you're a Michigan fan, this is a really bright spot to hang your hat on, so hopefully we bring these people in and make them fall in love with women's gymnastics and sell out Crisler."

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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