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ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL

April 17, 2010
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Michigan


Unbelievable. Unprecedented. Just plain weird. Those are just a few of the (fit for print) descriptors competitors and coaches had for last night’s men’s NCAA team finals at West Point in N.Y.

In the end, the Michigan Wolverines claimed their fourth national crown, the second under head coach Kurt Golder, but what most left the Holleder Center talking about was the bizarre turn the competition took in rotation three when Illinois’ penultimate athlete, Tyler Williamson, felt one of the rings break underneath his grip.

A nearly one hour delay followed, while both rings and straps were frantically replaced by a little-used set from Army’s gym. (In what looked like a Keystone Kops comedy routine, meet officials first tried, and failed, to use a ladder, then later simply took down the tower itself.) Coaches, including Olympian and rings expert Kevin Tan (Penn State), tried desperately to chalk the like-new replacement set (a pair Army was using only for strength training), before they were hung. After more than 30 minutes, officials told the athletes to revert to an open warm-up format, then later corrected themselves to allow stretching only and no use of the equipment.

After nearly an hour of inaction, competition resumed with Illinois’ final athlete, star Paul Ruggeri … Who promptly peeled off rings on his dismount. (Ruggeri had already struggled on his first event, pommel horse, falling multiple times.)

“In hindsight, starting on horse was not the best idea,” said first year head coach Justin Spring, still disappointed a day later. “Starting on what could have been our absolute best event? That was just stupid. That having been said, we were still in OK shape after horse, then the debacle on rings.

“It was a frustrating incident, to say the least,” added Spring. “If you’re going to reset a piece of equipment, do it 100 percent to spec. Don’t cut corners. I think they let their concerns about time get in the way of safety, and that’s my primary complaint. I think we were lucky—very, very lucky—that something catastrophic didn’t occur.”

Perhaps most affected by the incident were the Oklahoma Sooners. OU came off its best-ever pommel horse performance firmly in the national title hunt, but while the other teams bounced on floor and took practice strides down the vault runway, the Sooners sat watching the work on rings, trying not to imagine their championship chances slipping away. A three-minute touch warm-up did little to calm their concerns. (A three-minute touch was added to all future rotations as well.)

“We were sky-high after horse,” OU coach Mark Williams said of his team. “We won horse. Won it. That has never happened. Never. We had the momentum, maybe more so than in any other meet this year, and the debacle with the rings just took all that away. It was like starting all over, only worse.”

Worse because the rings, while re-hung, seemed far from secure. Defending all-around champ and World team member Steven Legendre was the first Sooner to mount … And the first to come crashing down on his back 1-1/2 dismount.

“It felt fine through my strength then, on the in-locate before my Yamawaki, one grip slipped really, really bad and from then on I was just hanging on for dear life,” Legendre explained. “It was a pretty scary feeling. There were definitely some serious slippage problems.”

More frantic ministrations—including Winter Cup champ and Sooner grad assistant Chris Brooks grabbing a pair of grips and swinging on the rings—did little to alleviate the problem and, while the Sooners managed two more so-so sets, fourth-up Alex Naddour, a National Team member and all-around threat, also peeled while attempting the same dismount as Legendre.

Williams, who caught Naddour, incurring an additional penalty by doing so, sank to the mat on his knees, wiping tears from his eyes and refusing to proceed until more was done to correct the equipment.

“I saw the chance to win a National Championship slipping out of our grasp, literally,” recalled Williams of his thoughts at that moment. “And the worst part was the situation was out of our control. It wasn’t fair to the athletes who have worked so hard. No matter how hard we tried to make it fair, it wasn’t. The replacement rings they put up were not up to the standard of a National Championship, period. They weren’t level. They were slippery. I think if you have five guys go on rings and three out of the five fall off, something is wrong. In hindsight, I should have stopped it sooner.”

Another round of sandpaper and chalk followed the Sooners’ stint, but the problems continued. (Some even speculated that grease used on the ring tower bolts was on one of the rings itself.)

In the next rotation, Cal star Kyle Bunthuwong also peeled off, prompting another 20-plus minutes of frantic rings resetting. This time, the rings were detached from the straps, rotated, reattached and leveled. (The rings tower was also once again lowered and the ringbolt—which had stuck when they’d tried to replace the rings initially—was adjusted further.)

While all this was going on, meetings between coaches, judges and the NCAA Rules Committee, which has the final say, commenced to discuss possible rings re-dos for the athletes who had peeled. Eventually the Rules Committee, in a non-unanimous vote (Williams and Stanford’s Thom Glielmi are both committee members), decided on an ad-hoc eighth rotation, allowing any athlete—and there ended up being six total—who peeled to re-do their routine, if they wanted to, for a new score after the conclusion of regular competition. Any score earned, better or worse, would count towards the team total. A precedent set by the women’s vaulting height mix-up at the 2000 Olympics.

But, in the end, with the meet stretched to almost five hours, how much those re-dos helped the now exhausted gymnasts, all but one of whom was an all-arounder, is debatable. Most teams had arrived at the arena before 4 p.m. Friday afternoon for the 7 p.m. start time, and it was just minutes before midnight when the rings repeats began. In addition, both Bunthuwong and Williamson were dealing with sore shoulders from their peel (Bunthuwong declined his second chance), while the other athletes were clearly gun shy after their earlier experiences.

“To be honest, I was just trying to be safe,” said Legendre of his second rings set that eliminated some of his swinging skills, like the Yamawaki, lowering his Start Value. “I wanted to regain some dignity and I had nothing to lose, but I know it wasn’t my best routine.”

The last gymnast to go was the first to fall. Williamson, who had badly tweaked his right shoulder when the ring broke, insisted on going again to give his team, ranked No. 1 coming into the Championships, a chance to redeem what had been an absolutely disastrous day. As Williamson slowly mounted the rings and the clock struck midnight, athletes from every team gathered around the raised rings podium and shouted encouragement.

“Every team, as group—not just teams with guys going on rings—every team came together as whole and everybody was rooting for everyone,” said Legendre of that moment. “It was a relief to see him finish up and finish strong.”

A relief to all but Cal, who saw themselves slip to fifth after Williamson’s 14.9 posted.

Though it was easy to overlook due to the drama of the rings debacle, the competition, not even at its halfway point when the break occurred, did continue. And it's worth noting that all three top teams—Michigan, Stanford and OU—had to perform on rings after the break.

Defending champs Stanford, which had started the night strong on vault (a 64.05 team total despite a fall from anchor Alex Buscaglia) and posted the meet’s highest p-bar total (59.7), were in the seemingly enviable position of ending the competition on rings, putting the most time between themselves and the incident.

“I don’t know if it was an advantage,” coach Glielmi countered. “We definitely weren’t as sharp on rings as we normally are. I think the length of the meet definitely affected us, strength-wise, a little bit.

“I think we opened a whole can of worms blaming the equipment for missed routines,” he added. “I really don’t think the peeling was necessarily because of the change of equipment. I think it was more a fatigue thing.”

In the end, it was came down to Stanford strongman Tim Gentry, who averages more than a 15.4 on rings, to close the gap with Michigan, who had already vaulted their way to a 360.1 team total. But a missed strength part and a small hop—owed perhaps to the lateness of the hour—left Gentry with a 15.15 and Stanford three tenths shy of the Wolverines.

“I was proud of how my team performed,” said Glielmi. “We had four hit routines, at least, on every event and I can’t ask for more than that. I will say that we didn’t give Michigan the win. We made them earn it.”

Not that the Wolverines were ready to celebrate just yet, staying mum long after Gentry's score showed them firmly in first place.

“No way,” said all-around champ Chris Cameron with a laugh, before explaining his team’s conservative approach. “We’ve celebrated a Championship before when it wasn’t [official] and didn’t get it. Two years ago at Big 10 we were tied, then we thought won, then we didn’t. And last year I, personally, was told, and even interviewed [on TV] as the Big 10 all-around champ when I hadn’t actually won, which I didn’t find out until I was called up for second place. We had been in that situation and we wanted to make sure we didn’t get stung again. We had a lot of respect for the other teams, the other gymnasts, and we knew the meet wasn’t over. Besides, Thomas (Kelley) still had to go [again on rings] and we didn’t want to leave him out.”

In the end, Kelley’s rings redux raised the Wolverines margin of victory by four tenths, putting an exclamation point on the victory for Golder.

“People were coming up to me, offering congratulations, but I’ve learned my lesson being around sports: It’s never over until it’s over,” Golder told Inside. “I was holding it in. I know what it’s like to have a championship in the palm of your hand and have it slip away. I’m just glad this one didn’t.”

Golder gives all the credit for that to his team. “Two days, back-to-back, is hard, in any circumstance, and this wasn’t a normal circumstance," he said. "Luckily, the guys were in the right frame of mind for it. One of the things we’d prepared for all year was overcoming adversity. That was something embedded in this team. I saw them starting to get rattled—some events had warm-up, some didn’t [and] it was such a long meet. I saw them start to shake and I told them that this meet was about battling adversity and the team that wins that battle is going to win this championship.

“There’s no magic thing [to winning,]” Golder demurred. “If we had that magic potion we’d be National Champs every year. What we had was a real dedicated group that was focused and steady and handled the situation, I think, outstandingly.”

“I can’t imagine a better way to finish out the season,” concluded Cameron. “We like dealing with adversity. It made winning harder, but it makes the prize all that much more special. … I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s definitely memorable!”

While the Wolverines (finally) reveled in their win, others were left wondering, what if?

“You know, it affected everyone,” Williams said. “Do I think it changed the outcome of the meet? No one can say for sure, but I know it changed the momentum. I’ve seen teams carry emotional momentum on to win a National Championship. I think we, as a team, could have done better down the stretch if it hadn’t happened. We would have been stronger through the end; more motivated. Would it have made the difference? Who knows? But I would have liked to have the chance to find out.”

“Of course it changed the outcome,” Spring stated flatly. “Of course it did! There’s no question about that. Bad equipment. Making rules up on the fly. Do I think it changed the National Championship team? I don’t think so.

“I know it [changed things] for my team,” added Spring emotionally. “I’d like to say we are fighters—and we are, we fought—but I was dying inside. It was a nightmare and, I don’t care who you are, you can’t wipe your head clean from that.”

“I’ve been doing NCAA meets for over 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Williams concluded. “Ultimately, I don’t want to take anything away from the winning team, yet I know we might have had a shot without that incident. Michigan was great two days in a row and maintained that momentum, even in the midst of all that. My hat is off to them for that.”

There are no what ifs,” insisted Legendre, who finished second in the all-around. “Stanford and Michigan were definitely the two best teams out there and they had to deal with the same adversity we did. No excuses. We were the third-best team last night.”

A night no one who lived through it will ever forget.

“That was one of the top 10 strangest things I’ve ever seen,” Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, who was calling the meet for ESPN, told Inside. “For that to happen at a Championships meet, it is just really unfortunate. In the end, it didn’t have a dramatic effect on the outcome. I don’t think it did, really. But I feel sorry for the guys because it deflated the excitement of all the guys. It sure cooled off a lot of jets.”

Though it was the only thing on the minds of most in the Holleder Center last night, don’t expect the ring thing to take top billing during ESPN2’s 90 minute Friday, April 23 broadcast (1:30 p.m. ET).

“Luckily we weren’t live,” Conner noted. “It was a big part of the event that night, but at the end of the day it didn’t really effect the team results, and that’s the [broadcast’s focus].”

Meanwhile, competition resumes tonight at 7 p.m. ET at the Holleder Center for event finals … With a new rings tower now in place.

EXTERNAL LINK: Complete Team Results

Photo copyright Marissa McClain/Michigan Daily

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