Paul: “It was all worth it.” 

By Ashlee Buhler 

Paul Juda stood at the top of the vault runway completely dialed in. His teammates were screaming right beside him, but he couldn’t hear a word. One vault; just a few seconds, stood between him and the coveted NCAA All-Around title. He just needed to do his normal. Laser focused, Juda took off down the runway, vaulted over the table with impeccable form, and planted his feet on the ground, refusing to move. In that moment, he not only became the NCAA Champion on vault, but the All-Around champion, just the sixth in Michigan program history. 

Juda can’t help but get goosebumps when he thinks about that moment. He remembers the moment former Wolverine Sam Mikulak won each of his three NCAA All-Around titles. He remembers the stuck landings and the victorious roars that followed. Juda credits Mikulak for inspiring him to come to Michigan and now he’s walking in his footsteps—or perhaps as Mikulak said to him after the meet—he’s walking in his own.

Look for our feature on Paul Juda in the 2022 NCAA Commemorative issue of Inside Gymnastics! Subscribe now! 


 

Paul Juda, NCAA Champion! How does that sound? 

I never thought it would actually happen! I dreamed of it and I worked for it but for it to actually all come together was really awesome. I think Tim Daggett said it really well on the stream, he said I ‘slayed a dragon,’ which is so funny because I would never think of Brody (Malone) that way, but in reality, he was the most dominant, so to beat him one time is really awesome. I don’t really view it as between him and I — I think we’re trying to push each other to a point where the USA is now better. 

Brody was the favorite to win it in many people’s eyes, but you had actually posted the highest All-Around score of the season. What was your mindset coming in?

There was no mindset! I had one mission and it was hit six for six with no major errors. I didn’t care about scores or results, it was just: do my sets, don’t get hurt, hope for the best for the team, and just do the good gymnastics that I had been doing all year. 

Your last event was the vault and you needed over a 14.435 to win the meet. You absolutely nailed it and received a 15.000. Take me back to that moment and the emotions you were feeling. 

I think the story begins earlier. I had messed up my start value on pommel horse a little bit. I messed up a skill but stayed on. The average person might not have known I made a mistake but my heart was pounding. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw I was second to Brody. I took a moment and asked myself, ‘Is this what I came here for? Did I work this hard all season to just get second?’ It wasn’t even so much about beating Brody, it was about beating myself and allowing myself to do what I knew I was capable of. We went to rings next and I remember walking across the floor to get to the corral and my eyes were glued to the ground… I wasn’t interested in anything in my peripheral vision. I remember warming up and talking to my teammate Cameron Bock. I said, ‘This is where the story begins.’ I think a part of me hoped that if we rocked rings and vault as a team we could win it. I remember I stuck my rings dismount in the one touch and my assistant coach said, ‘Hey man you can smile. You look a little tense. Relax!’ I remember shaking my head no. He was like, ‘You look like a villain.’ And I was like, ‘I am one. This is the moment.’ [Laughs] I sat back down in my chair, cheered on the guys, and I remember sticking my rings dismount with no emotion because I wasn’t interested in celebrating five events in. (I was thinking) ‘I still have to do vault, I have a chance, but I can’t get out of my head now.’ The first athlete from our team goes, David Wolma, a freshman, and nails it. Him and I had been going back and forth wanting to stick together for so many weeks. He went ballistic and the whole team was hype for him. At that point I realized I had to remove myself from the group because I didn’t want to get too excited or too out of the zone. My coach Xio came over to me and I thought he was going to make me laugh but he was like, ‘Go for the stick.’ You can ask any coach of any high level athlete, you don’t go for the stick because then you fall or do something wrong because you’re thinking of the wrong thing! I thought ‘what a weird thing to tell me in a scenario where all I need to do is my average vault and we’d be fine.’ I had no idea what the scores were, where we were, but I got up to the podium, raised my hand, and felt my body do what it’s always done. My mind was blank. I couldn’t even hear the guys. I told myself a couple physical cues to make sure I landed the vault and then the next thing I know I opened my eyes and saw my feet and I’m like, ‘this is not the time to step, huh?’ I think that’s when I stepped back into reality and everything rushed over me. I realized I stuck a vault which I’ve been trying to do for three years now. I was happy that David and I had stuck. As I saluted I realized I won. So much had overwhelmed me because the amount of injuries we battled, the travel adversity, the national team expectations, all these things had culminated and forged me into this moment. Standing on top of the podium with the trophy, I knew it was all worth it. 

Did you do anything fun to celebrate? 

One of our close team friends was celebrating their 21st birthday that night and they asked if I was coming out. I remember saying, ‘I’ve got no need. There’s nothing in my heart that desires more.’ I was so content. I did what I came here for, I called and thanked the people who made this happen and that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to just bask in it and not let anything interfere with it. I had a big dinner with the team, some buttery croissants, a burger; and I loved that feeling. For me it was putting so many things on hold, so many sacrifices; for it to all come together was enough for me. 

Michigan’s longtime coach Kurt Golder retired before the season started, how did that impact the team?

When Kurt abruptly left it sucked. We were a little lost in the sense that we didn’t know why and that’s what kind of hurt us the most. We understood it was personal and we didn’t want to pry. I think everyone deserves that respect, if they don’t want to share, don’t pry. It was definitely tough but we were set up so well with Xio and Jordan Gaarenstroom and we luckily got another assistant coach at that time, Juha Tanskanan. They led us as a pack. So for me to look back on it in retrospect, sure Kurt leaving sucked, but we knew Kurt wouldn’t leave us if he didn’t think we were capable of handling ourselves. Xio was able to step into a role he had seen done so well and he was able to take all the experience from all the different teams he’s coached, with Mark Williams and with China, and the lessons he learned from Kurt and all of that culminated into him now being a head coach. The team is so happy to have Xio and it’s what Kurt would have wanted as well. For years to come I think the team is in good hands. 

What impact did Kurt have on your career personally?

I think the number one thing he’s taught me is this: attitude is everything. One day I was having a pretty bad day in the gym. He said, ‘There are guys when you go to Worlds or the Olympics who are on their last leg and they’re smiling. You have no idea what they’re battling right now.’ So I thought, ‘Wow.’ I mean Kurt’s seen it all, so he knows what he’s talking about. So even when it’s not my greatest performance — just smile and be grateful for the opportunity. The second thing he taught me was six for six above anything else. There’s no point in pushing difficulty if it’s going to look like crap. To be unique is cool, but to hit six for six is how you win championships and rings. It was so cool to get a text message from him after the meet. It felt like he was there doing it with me and I know he’s so proud of us.

You have already accomplished so much this year, what does the rest of 2022 look like for you? 

Individually I have a couple of meets on the horizon. I’m hoping to do the World University Games, then the U.S. Classic, U.S. Championships, and then there’s a meet in Paris that is going to be in the arena that the Olympics are going to be at, so that’s something I’ve got my eye on. And then of course the World Championships! And then after October I want a break. I want to chill out for a little bit because I’ve been going non-stop. 

The Olympics are two years away already… Are you good with that timeline? Are you ready for it? 

I don’t think I’d be happy going to the Olympics with my current state of gymnastics, I think I’d want to be better. It kind of stinks because I know if I had done the performance I did at NCAA’s at the trials, I think I would have had a pretty good chance at making that team (in 2020) but I’m really proud of the guys who did make it. I was happy to vicariously live through Yoder with that pommel horse spot. I wouldn’t want this to be my final showcase. I think there’s a lot more left in the tank. I’m only 20 and there’s a lot more to develop in 2 years. I know it’s going to fly by and there’s going to be so many more things to do in that time, but I’m focusing on having a lot of fun in my life and enjoying all the small things and not putting too much emphasis on one part of my life… in order to never get too sad when something bad happens. But the Olympics in terms of time…  I know what I want to do. I don’t just want to go there and participate with our team — I want our team to be there and be known as one of the best in the world. 

It’s been 14 years since the U.S. men have won an Olympic medal. What is it going to take to get it done? 

The USA is chasing China, Japan and Russia. It stinks because in order for us to (medal) we have to beat one of those teams but honestly, I think we can do it. What it takes… it’s one of those things where there isn’t a manual with the answer. The way USAG is pushing the D scores with this bonus system is cool. I’m a big proponent of change. Staying static is a great way to go crazy! I’m a very creative person so I like creative ideas and I think they’re doing something, which is better than nothing. I think we’ll know whether it helps or not later on, but there’s a really strong message from USAG right now that you have to do big gymnastics and I think that’s a great message to push, but I also think we should never lose sight of execution because it’s really cool to do big gymnastics, but at the end of the day, as Kurt always said, don’t add a skill if it’s not going to increase your score at the end. The guys internationally are not just doing big skills clean, they’re doing it great.

With your silver medal at the Pan American Championships you earned the U.S. men an individual spot to Tokyo, but missed out on making the team yourself. How did that affect you?

I try to be pretty neutral about it. A lot of what my sports psychologist here at Michigan and I talk about is neutral thinking. Neutral thinking essentially attaches no weight to a negative or positive result in order to never let that affect your whole mantra and self being. I try to not let the situation control me, and let my control over the situation be as large as possible. I was so happy to earn the individual spot and when I missed out on the Olympic team I was disappointed, but I also knew if I had been selected it would have been wrong because I had a poor meet. So it would almost feel like an injustice to somebody else if I was selected. In gymnastics you have to take it at face value. If you do bad, you do bad, and the score is going to reflect that. Having a poor performance there was on me and I learned so much in the past year about what it takes to be good. So yes, I was upset with myself at the time but I knew I didn’t do well, so I didn’t want to get a consolation prize. I think it’s much cooler to go in with a goal and a mission and achieve that, and I didn’t. That just gives me a reason to go in there and make it next time.

The crowd at the Olympic Trials was massive, one of the biggest crowds we’ve seen for a men’s gymnastics meet! Do you think combining the men’s and women’s competitions going forward (both elite and NCAA) could help grow the sport on the men’s side? 

I would love it to happen. I think it would be nothing but beneficial. You have families who somehow managed to get two NCAA division 1 athletes in college and have to pick which NCAA’s to go to, which stinks. You also have situations like mine where two athletes are dating and the parents want to watch both of their kids. I think it brings nothing but more attention to the sport. Like I said, I’m a huge proponent of change. I know there was also talks last year about switching the men’s scoring back to the 10 system and I was like, ‘let’s do it!’ I think our sport deserves to have (more recognition) because the work we put in is second to none. 

One thing I really appreciate about you is your “we over me” mentality, where no matter how well you do, your focus always comes back to your team. Have you always been that way? 

I don’t think so. When I was younger I didn’t have the best group of guys to train with in terms of pushing me. I think I was one of the best (in my gym) growing up and that gave me a little too much of an ego. I wasn’t really focused on other people, I was just focused on me. And I think I am still focused on me in terms of my bigger goals, but having 23 guys on the Michigan team that are truly some of the most unique and cool people ever, it’s different from a national team because I know these guys are pursuing their academic interests and they’re doing gymnastics because they truly love it. It’s really awesome to see the dichotomy of two gymnasts because one could be being funded and doing gymnastics because that’s all that’s keeping them alive, whereas some are paying to go to school and the gym offers them a place to release their energy and do what they love. I love training with the college guys! They have passions and hopes that go far beyond gymnastics. At Michigan we may not be the best group of gymnasts but we’re trying to be and on top of that, we are definitely the best group of people. In terms of the “we over me” mentality, that’s something I hope I can eventually bring to a much bigger stage in my gymnastics career. It’s so cool to share a medal. Like that trophy that I have is cool, but it would be so much cooler if everyone had one. That’s how I see the coveted World or Olympic team medal too. Sharing one medal that everyone worked towards is even more awesome. I also think if somebody is more capable and more able than I am, I’m the first one to step away and say, ‘let them have it.’ The perfect example would be the event finals for Big 10s, one of my teammates who won the floor title his sophomore year didn’t make the finals, but I was fully ok with stepping away and letting him have (my spot) and he won again. That’s the kind of thing I love. To be 1000% honest I’ve done so much in gymnastics already, I just want to share it with other people too.

Photos by Jessica Frankl and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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