'That magic sauce'

All year, men's gymnastics coach Kurt Golder preached mental toughness. The team slogan was 'Blame no one. Blame nothing. Be prepared to handle everything.' During the turbulent national championship meet, the Wolverines would need all the mental toughness they could find. (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

All year, men’s gymnastics coach Kurt Golder preached mental toughness. The team slogan was ‘Blame no one. Blame nothing. Be prepared to handle everything.’ During the turbulent national championship meet, the Wolverines would need all the mental toughness they could find. (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

WEST POINT, N. Y. — After the University of Michigan men’s gymnastics team won its last national title in 1999, gymnastics legend Bart Conner asked then-sophomore co-captain Justin Toman when he knew his team had won the championship. Toman famously replied, “When we walked in the door.” Current Michigan junior Thomas Kelley never quite comprehended the quote. Not until this past April 16, that is, when the underdog Wolverines entered West Point’s Christl Arena, the site of the 2010 NCAA championship meet.The day before, Michigan had posted the highest score in team qualifiers. Though the general consensus favored defending champion Stanford, or powerhouse Oklahoma, the Wolverines had a swagger no one had seen since 1999.”I [finally] understood what Toman had meant,” Kelley said. “Walking into the arena, I just knew, all we need to do is hit and we’re going to win. That was really a relaxing and calming feeling. I knew, starting out p-bars, that this was going to be a special night for Michigan gymnastics.”
Junior Chris Cameron, the Big Ten all-around champion and a member of the US national team, led the Wolverines with one sublime performance after another. (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

Junior Chris Cameron, the Big Ten all-around champion and a member of the US national team, led the Wolverines with one sublime performance after another. (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

That inner calm would prove crucial to Michigan’s success, and it was hard-earned. The Wolverines had been getting closer to the NCAA title for years, coming in second place in 2009. This year they were loaded with talent and experience, led by junior Chris Cameron, the Big Ten all-around champion and a member of the United States National Team. But they also knew that in the cauldron of a championship meet, success required mental strength as much as physical skill. All season, coach Kurt Golder talked about overcoming challenges, and it had finally sunk in. “We just love adversity,” said Cameron. “We’ve got a sign that says, ‘Handle everything. Blame nothing.’ We deal with any problems that come our way.”This night, the Wolverines would face plenty.

Broken thumb. Broken rings.

Men’s gymnastics meets feature six events, and with six teams and a group of individual qualifiers competing in the finals, each team would take a bye between floor exercise and pommel horse. As the top qualifier, Michigan earned the first pick of rotation, choosing to start on parallel bars.The Wolverines hit five of six sets, posting the second-highest parallel-bars score of the night (59.55). Likewise, they sparkled on high bar, setting a score no other team would match. But on the floor exercise, Michigan hit its first potential crisis. Leadoff junior Ben Baldus-Strauss, broke his thumb on a rollout. Despite the pain, he willed himself through his routine and earned a gritty 15.25—just half a tenth lower than his qualifying score. Fifth-year senior Kent Caldwell, Kelley and Cameron kept their focus, capping the floor rotation with three straight scores above 15.00. Even as they completed their routines, though, nearly the entire arena’s gaze turned to the still rings, where an even more daunting challenge had arisen.Just two skills into Illinois gymnast Tyler Williamson’s rings routine, the left ring snapped. He’d dropped immediately to his feet, the bottom of the ring hanging by its thick elastic-band core.

Kent Caldwell somersaults through the air

Despite one potential setback after another, the Wolverines remained unshakable. “I’ve never been that aggressive and determined to do something in my life,” said Kent Caldwell (above). (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

The competition ground to a halt, with meet officials and Army gymnasts racing to repair the rings. They eventually pulled down the entire tower to attach a nearly brand-new set. Time elapsed: 40 minutes. For the Wolverines, the situation looked worse. It was their turn for a bye, meaning their wait would last almost twice as long.Most of the other gymnasts looked perplexed during the impromptu bye. Their bodies cooled and they had plenty of time to worry themselves sick. The Wolverines did not look like most gymnasts.While the rings were being fixed, they stayed on the competition floor, joking around from a distance with the fans. “It didn’t take a whole lot on my end…to keep these guys mentally where they needed to be,” Golder said. “I think they were very determined: ‘We’re not letting this slip away from us.’ “When the meet resumed 40 minutes later and the Wolverines moved to the official bye, they continued their fun—which included dueling pommel horse circles—behind a curtain. The pressure started to make other teams crack. Oklahoma especially seemed unnerved, with several gymnasts peeling off the rings. But the Wolverines were having the time of their lives.”They were having an incredible amount of fun,” Michigan assistant coach Ralph Rosso said. “It was like they weren’t even at a gymnastics meet at that moment.”

Machine mode

Almost an hour and a half later, when Michigan did swing back into action, it was on the most difficult event in gymnastics: pommel horse. And they had to do it without Baldus-Strauss, who was nursing his broken thumb. In past years, the situation would have been a recipe for a disastrous meltdown.But when the Wolverines seem impossibly loose and relaxed, they are also at their most confident and aggressive. And this inevitably leads to top performances—exactly what happened on the horse. Graceful senior Mel Santander started a string of four scores above 14.00, and the dynamic Cameron led the team with a tremendous 15.05 set.”It was thrilling,” junior Ian Makowske said. “I was jumping up and down. But there was another part of me that, to be quite honest, wasn’t that surprised at all.”Next event: rings. Rings and vault are the two highest-scoring events, and by leaving them until the end, Michigan was banking on a late surge to get past Stanford and Oklahoma. But tonight, rings had become a nightmare. So many gymnasts had now peeled off that the Rules Committee announced they would all get “do-overs” in an extra rotation at the meet’s conclusion.

Phillip Goldberg

Unfazed by the breaking of a ring in an Illinois gymnast’s routine, Phillip Goldberg (above) and Chris Cameron led the Wolverines to an outstanding round on the rings. (Photo: U-M Media Relations.)

Sophomore Douglass Johnson, competing in only his second college meet, led off, earning a 14.25. Goldberg and Cameron, as usual, led the team with their near-perfect strength positions and stuck dismounts, earning a 15.25 and 15.45 respectively. Though Kelley, Michigan’s final competitor, peeled off on his dismount, he immediately bounced up, yelling, “Let’s vault!”Just three points behind nearly deadlocked Stanford and Oklahoma, Michigan knew a good vault rotation would win it. The Wolverines pulled it off, led by Caldwell’s 15.90 performance. “I think we were all in machine mode or something,” said Caldwell, who earned his first two All-American titles on floor and vault. “I’ve never been that aggressive and determined to do something in my life…. There was no alternative to hitting. That was the only option.”Now it came down to Stanford’s last competitor on the rings, Tim Gentry. Gentry’s average on the event was 15.462—if he got just a 15.45, Stanford would retake the lead. But a 15.15 flashed on the scoreboard, and the Michigan fan section briefly exploded. The team, just below its fans, shushed them. There were still rings routines to be redone, and the Wolverines didn’t want to celebrate early.Finally Kelley, who had fallen on his first rings attempt, posted a 14.65 in the extra rotation, and the Wolverines knew the championship was finally theirs. They had beaten Stanford by a solid seven tenths, 360.50-359.80, with Oklahoma in third (357.05). Former gymnast Joe Catrambone ran an enormous Michigan flag down to the floor, where Cameron promptly wrapped himself in it as his teammates whooped and the fans embraced.”They acted like a team,” Justin Toman said. “You could see that the guys had that magic sauce this year.”

Records, sweeps and All-American status

Cameron and Santander placed first and third in the all-around, respectively, a fitting end to a year where both gymnasts were rock-solid in every meet. The triumph was especially sweet for Kent Caldwell, co-captain Phillip Goldberg and Ryan McCarthy, Michigan’s three fifth-year seniors who had returned for one last shot at the title.

7 michigan gymnasts pose with their all-america trophies

By the end of the weekend, U-M had earned a national title, a school-record 13 All-American awards (above) and a 1-2-3 sweep of the high bars by Ryan McCarthy, Ian Makowske and Mel Santander. (Photos: U-M Media Relations.)

“It meant the world to me,” Goldberg said. “Our No. 1 team goal has always been to win a national championship.”And the Wolverines made sure no one who contributed to their win was left out, even calling former assistant coach Scott Vetere on the phone so he could hear their traditional victory celebration: belting out “The Victors” in the middle of the floor.The fairy tale wasn’t over, either. Saturday night’s individual event finals ended with a school-record 13 All-American titles for Michigan, including four on parallel bars. The last moment of the 2010 NCAAs featured three Wolverines—champion Ryan McCarthy, Ian Makowske and Mel Santander, standing atop the high-bar podium after completing a 1-2-3 sweep. All three had finally blossomed after enduring a long struggle.”It’s honestly been my goal since I set foot at Michigan to (be) All-American,” McCarthy said. “I think that was the coolest aspect about being up there with both Mel and Ian—just knowing that all these younger gymnasts are looking right now, seeing Michigan sweep…. It’s really good for the program and for the university.”


  1. Scott Harris - 1992, 1995

    Way to go fellas! Kurt, thanks for keeping the program alive and strong. Congrats to all!
    I wish I could have been there.
    Mel, way to represent the Southboro instituion at Michigan gymnastics.
    Go Blue!


  2. Raymond Gura

    I enjoyed the article by Colt Rosenweig about the Men\’s NCAA Gymnastics Championships.


  3. Lynn Swanson - 1976

    Wonderful news and a wonderfully written article, Colt! Thank you! GO BLUE!!


  4. Nan Crossland - 65

    Wow…this was such a great account that I felt like I was there watching it. Way to GO BLUE!


  5. Carolyn Osborn-Bowers - 1961

    What a wonderful story. It is a thrill that they continue to have an excellent men’s team. I trained with the Michiigan Men’s Gymnastic Team from 1956 to 1960. MSU had Ernistine Russell training with the men and Newt Loken allowed me to bring a home-made Balance Beam and bar extensions. The team were like brothers and they all helped me out. Keep it up and Go Blue!


  6. Rebekah Witter

    Great recipe for success: Michigan’s Magic Sauce!
    Inspiring article – Go, Blue!
    Way to go, Colt!


  7. Dennis Paoletti - PSU '67

    National championships are hard fought and well deserved.
    All former gymnasts appreciate the hard work and enjoy the beauty of the sport.
    Good Luck in the future


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