Gymnast Jackie Kramer stands at the start of the runway, staring down the vault, 82 feet away. She inhales, exhales, and propels herself down the padded strip.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H20UrwvvzS0At the end of the runway, she dives head-first toward the floor, plants her hands, then somersaults onto the vault. That starts her into a backward flip, bounding head over heels like a runaway slinky. As she spins away from the vault, she must make a blind landing, without any sense of when the floor will come up to meet her.For all the kinetic energy she’s poured into this maneuver, called the Urchenko backflip, it’s not quite enough, and she hits the foam pad not on her feet but her backside. She bounds to her feet with a determined half-smile, then runs back to her coach to discuss what to adjust the next time. Why do Kramer and her teammates knock themselves out, day after day? It isn’t fame or fortune. They are already too old for the Olympic team, and there is no professional circuit waiting for them after college. So, what propels them down that runway?
From the bottom up
Kramer, a National Honor Society member from West Hills, New York, declined invitations from Penn State and Brown, where she would have starred, to walk on at Michigan. “I just loved the campus,” she said, “and everyone on the team was so friendly. It just felt like a better fit.”The decision came with a very real price: her parents had to pay out-of-state tuition, and Jackie had to start at the bottom of a barrel filled with talent. Well into her junior season, she still ranks behind All-Americans Becky Bernard, Kylee Botterman, and Tatjana Thuener-Rego, five other All-Big Ten gymnasts and three scholarship athletes. Their coach, Bev Plocki, knows something about rising through the ranks. When she was growing up near Pittsburgh, her mother drove her ninety minutes to her gymnastics club, killed six hours running errands, then drove her home, completing a nine-hour round trip. After Bev earned a scholarship and two degrees from West Virginia, she moved to Michigan, at 24, to take over the moribund gymnastics program. Moribund might be generous. Michigan had won the first Big Ten women’s gymnastics title in 1982, then failed to finish in the top half the next seven years, prompting serious talk about cutting the program.In Plocki’s first year, 1990, her team crawled up from the basement to sixth place, then third and finally first in 1992. But Plocki knew if she wanted to build a truly enduring program, they would need better training facilities than the euphemistically named Coliseum, which housed the hockey team from 1923 to 1973. It’s the kind of building that looks like it never could have been new. A huge green curtain separated the gymnasts from intramural soccer and basketball players. “Balls would come flying over constantly,” Plocki recalls. “When the marching band practiced there, you could be an inch from someone’s face screaming at the top of your lungs and they couldn’t hear you. And it’s dark, with these depressing yellow lights. The girls used to drag themselves to the gym—the place sapped your energy—and we’d spend the first ten minutes just getting them motivated to work.”
Better than they think
Despite the dreary digs, Plocki attracted stars like Elise Ray, Beth Wymer and Sarah Cain, who combined for a staggering 39 All-American honors—and all graduated on time.They came to Ann Arbor for a variety of reasons, including some intangibles unique to collegiate gymnastics. Unlike most athletes, gymnasts compete not for their high schools but club teams that rarely have much team spirit, and attract only a few hundred spectators for a big meet.The sport doesn’t offer much of a future, either. The United States Olympic team takes only six women every four years. If you made the mistake of being born in the wrong year, you’re out of luck. College gymnasts, Plocki jokes, are “the grandmothers of the sport.”But collegiate gymnastics has a lot to offer—and Michigan gymnastics, more than most. The athletes didn’t come for the Coliseum’s ambience in Plocki’s first twelve seasons. They came to win Big Ten titles, compete for national championships and feel like part of a team — one with actual fans. The team averages about 3,000 fans at home, ranking behind only football, men’s basketball and ice hockey.“At our clubs, some of us made a few friends we might still talk to once in a while, but that’s it,” says Kylee Botterman. “Here we have eleven other sisters we work with every day of the week.””At most places,” says Jordan Sexton, “you come to college and you’re done learning. Here, they push us, and you keep getting better.”But the coaches can’t push too hard. When you’re coaching men, you spend most of your time telling them they’re not as good as they think are. With women, you spend just as much time telling them they’re better than they think.”These kids tend to be such perfectionists,” Plocki says. “They are harder on themselves than anyone else could be.”That helps explain the team’s 3.4 grade point average last season, and its long list of Academic All-Americans—45 so far, and that figure doesn’t include Kramer and her 3.7 gpa in political science, because the NCAA does not count walk-ons in their statistics.
Don Shepherd, a 1958 graduate of Michigan’s business school, has always kept close tabs on his alma mater. “Everything I heard about women’s gymnastics, I liked,” he says. So a decade ago, he decided to endow one of their scholarships.When Plocki got the good news, she immediately gathered what she could—a gymnastics polo shirt, a baseball cap and a team poster signed by the team—and shipped the package to Shepherd, overnight. Shepherd receives countless letters and gifts, but, he says, “I know sincerity when I see it.” Since then, he’s always stopped by the old Coliseum during his Ann Arbor visits, and the gymnasts have kept the letters coming. When the team traveled to Salt Lake City for the 1999 NCAA championships, Shepherd joined them. After taking a tour of Utah’s brand-new training facility, the disparity stunned him. That night, over a thank-you dinner with coach Plocki, Shepherd said he wanted to give the program a million dollars of seed money to build its own world-class facility. Hearing this, the generally hard-nosed coach couldn’t stop the waterworks. “Don’t cry!” Shepherd said, before tearing up himself. But few donors followed his lead, so Shepherd paid the entire $3.5 million bill himself. When the doors opened seven years ago, the gymnasts “literally ran into the building,” Plocki recalls. “They were jumping on the tramps and diving into the pits, like kids at Christmas. The natural light, the space, the facilities—it was night and day. Instead of coming to practice deflated, now they show up inspired to work—and so do I.””There’s not a better facility than this one, anywhere,” Maureen Moody said. “For us, it’s a playground.”
The missing banner
It may be a playground, but serious work gets done there—witness the 16 Big Ten championship banners hanging overhead, 15 of them earned by Plocki’s teams. The place is missing only one thing: a national championship banner. The Wolverines have come close, painfully close, finishing second to Utah in 1996 by the score of 196.650 to 196.425—a difference of 0.225 points—and to Georgia in 1999 by 0.3 points—margins so razor thin that the national title could be decided by a walk-on from Long Island sticking an Urchenko backflip. Near the end of a meet this year, Plocki asked Kramer if she wanted to try the Urchenko in competition for the first time. Kramer was game, but she spilled once more. Three days later, in practice, she nailed it—and nailed it again, and again, five out of eight tries. It wasn’t a competition, there were no judges, and the only people cheering were her teammates. But she was one step closer to helping the team when they might need it most.And it was under those banners, after practice this past December, that coach Plocki gathered her team on the padded floor. When the athletes achieve their goals for the week, Plocki sometimes gives them a small prize, such as a new pair of athletic socks with block M’s on them. But Kramer had already won her socks that week, “So I have nothing else to give her,” Plocki explained, deadpan. “Nothing—except a full scholarship.””Are you serious?” Kramer asked. Her teammates cheered, and hugged her. “I had no idea,” Kramer says. “At first I was smiling—and then I started crying. I couldn’t hold it back.”As senior Tatjana Thuener-Rego, a two-time All-American, put it, “All of us can say our best friends are on this team right now.”