Can't Break Steel:

Michigan Women's Gymnastics

As a photographer, it is difficult for me to describe the Michigan women’s gymnastics team in words. Their talent goes way above anything I could have ever expected. For several months, I’ve been photographing the team from warm-ups to post win celebrations, and have seen the story of their season unfold. I know this team deserves the recognition of all the accomplishments they’ve worked so hard for, which is why I wanted to share the story of their season. I am not an athlete in any capacity, but what I’ve seen behind the scenes, at practice, and at meets is the raw emotion, determination, and commitment that makes this team special.

Coach Bev Plocki claps after senior Olivia Karas completes her floor routine during the Elevate the Stage meet. Olivia was the last floor routine of the rotation and it was around this time they knew they had won the 2019 regular season championship.

The first day I photographed the team, it was Halloween and I had a meeting with Coach Bev Plocki. She offered me some of the candy that was laying on her desk, immediately putting me at ease. It was the same calm, reassuring energy that her team sees at meets before one of the gymnasts is about to complete a routine. This is Plocki’s 29th year as the head coach of Michigan’s women’s gymnastics team and it is easy to understand why.

Coach Bev Plocki hugs one of her gymnasts after her beam routine during the Elevate the Stage meet.

Invested only begins to explain how committed she is to the team.

Coach Bev Plocki cheers on freshman Natalie Wojcik after she successfully landed the dismount from her beam routine in a meet against Oklahoma at Crisler Center on March 9th, 2019.

On the days I went to practice, I saw everyone come in and fire each other up. Every practice I went to, I heard a “C’mon Blue” or “Let’s Go Blue” echo throughout the gym every so often. As soon as anyone would land a tough vault, bar, beam, or floor pass, she was bound to get a hug or cheers from multiple teammates, whether they were at a meet in Crisler or just practicing at the gymnastics center.

Senior Olivia Karas and sophomore Lauren Farley congratulate freshman Natalie Wojcik on landing her dismount from beam during practice.

Teammates Lauren Farley, Olivia Karas, Sam Javanbakht, Maddy Osman, Abby Heiskell, Anne Maxim, and Maggie O'Hara watch and cheer on freshman Natalie Wojcik as she does the splits during her floor routine at the Donald R. Shepherd Women's Gymnastic Center.

Freshman Abby Heiskell makes senior Olivia Karas laugh during the dancing portion of her floor routine during practice before the season started.

The team is still a team even behind closed doors. They don’t do it just because they are at a meet or in front of a crowd. They do it because they are a family and want everyone to succeed as best they can.

Freshman Maddie Mariani and Abby Heiskell imitate fellow freshman Natalie Wojcik during her floor routine. Every gymnast has their signature floor routine moves that the rest of the team imitates.

Sophomore Anna Dayton and junior Lexi Funk cheer along with the team before introductions in a meet against Iowa at Crisler Center on February 10th, 2019.

Sophomores Sam Javanbakht, Anne Maxim, and Lauren Farley cheer on junior Maddy Osman on beam during the Elevate the Stage meet. Essentially everyone who is not performing is cheering on the gymnast who is.

The team's reaction to freshman Natalie Wojcik's perfect 10 score on her vault routine at the Elevate the Stage meet. It was her first 10 of the season, having received a 9.975 twice before, just short of perfect. She is third in the nation on vault.

I couldn't describe to you how hard it is to do these routines — I'm not a gymnast or an athlete of any kind — but I can tell you that the team makes them look easy. My jaw often dropped at some of the passes and skills they can do on the spot. Anything from one-handed handstands to mid-air flips and much, much more, — these are elements it seems everyone can do in their sleep. It’s only proof of the time, dedication and sacrifice they’ve put into every day of the season and the commitment they have to each other.

Sophomore Lauren Farley flips as part of her beam routine during practice in February. Her beam routine is one of her highest scoring events in her career at Michigan so far.

Freshman Abby Heiskell does one-handed handstands during practice to prepare for routines.

Junior Maddy Osman prepares for her beam sequence during the teams' practice for their intersquad meet. In the team's beam rotation, she is the only one to complete the dismount to the side of the beam.

Sophomore Anne Maxim gets taped up before warmups at the Elevate the Stage meet at the Huntington Center in Toledo, OH. Taping up the entire team can sometimes take up to an hour if not longer.

Sophomore Sam Javanbakht and senior Olivia Karas help senior Emma McLean rewrap her ankle in the locker room before Michigan went on floor. Breaks in the locker room consist of rewrapping, refueling, and a lot of dancing.

The wrappings on an ankle to protect from injuries.

Freshman Abby Brenner flips during her uneven bars routine at the Elevate the Stage meet, where the entire team scored 9.900 or higher, the second highest combined score in program history.

Junior Lexi Funk dismounts from the beam during the Elevate the Stage meet against Illinois, Rutgers, Ohio State, and Minnesota at the Huntington Center in Toledo, OH.

Freshman Natalie Wojcik twists herself during her vault routine during the Elevate the Stage meet. This was the vault that scored her a 10 and probably influenced her winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Senior Olivia Karas celebrates landing a pass during her floor routine in a meet against Iowa at Crisler Center on February 10th, 2019.

Junior Maddy Osman flips during her bar routine while warming up before a meet against Iowa at Crisler Center. This multiple exposure shot shows one of the more difficult parts of her routine on beam.

And even when things don’t always go as planned, the team does not put their heads down. For example, many gymnasts release from the high bar in mid-air to spin and catch it again during their routine. There is always the risk of missing the bar and falling to the mat. But when this happened during their meet against Oklahoma, no one was deterred. Immediately after the bars rotation, the same gymnast was first up on the beam rotation and landed a 9.900 out of 10.000, just .025 from her highest score this season on beam.

Sophomore Lauren Farley flips during her beam routine during a meet against Oklahoma at Crisler Center on March 9th, 2019.

Everyone is part of the team, whether they are performing in meets or cheering on a teammate. Injured or not, leotard or not, it makes no difference. Everyone still puts on make-up before meets, sparkles and all, and runs out during introductions at Crisler.

Seniors Emma McLean and Olivia Karas get ready before an exhibition against Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan at Crisler Center on December 2nd, 2018.

Senior Emma McLean puts sparkles on junior Maggie O'Hara before the Elevate the Stage meet in the locker room. The girls always put sparkles on, no matter what. During this competition, they actually gave me some sparkles as well.

A gymnast runs out of the tunnel for introductions before an exhibition against Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan at Crisler Center on December 2nd, 2018.

The energy everyone added to practices and meets is out of this world. The team would not be the same without each and every one of them.

Junior Maggie O’Hara and sophomores Sam Javanbakht and Anna Dayton sing along to the music in between bar routines during the Elevate the Stage meet.

Student assistant coaches Sam Roy and Polina Shchennikova congratulate freshman Maddie Mariani after her beam routine during a meet against Iowa. Sam and the other student assistant coach are fundamental to helping correct small issues, so the pay-off is worth it.

Student assistant coach Polina Shchennikova and junior Maggie O'Hara smile during a break in between the beam routines during a meet against Oklahoma at Crisler Center on March 9th, 2019.

Freshman Abby Heiskell, senior Olivia Karas and freshman Abby Brenner celebrate their regular season championship on the bus back to Ann Arbor after the Elevate the Stage meet.

From practice and meets to a regular season and tournament championship, and now competing for a national championship, this team is bound together. The scoring may be for individual events and routines, but it’s clear to me gymnastics is a team sport, through and through.

The team's reaction to finding out they had beaten Alabama 197.275 to 197.225 to advance to the national championship at the Ann Arbor Regional. 

© 2021 by Katelyn Mulcahy 

Katelyn Mulcahy is a freelance action, editorial, and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, California.