Men’s gymnastics season rewind: Illini claim individual titles during difficult season
May 3, 2021
The Illinois men’s gymnastics team wrapped up its 2021 season a few weeks ago at the NCAA championships, claiming sixth place in the team competition. Though the team didn’t finish where it hoped to, junior Ian Skirkey won an individual championship on pommel horse. Two weeks earlier, fellow junior Michael Fletcher won the Big Ten vault championship, and a month before that, volunteer coach Alex Diab won the still rings championship at the USA Gymnastics Winter Cup.
While Fletcher, Skirkey and Diab’s titles were the highlights of the 2021 season, there was more to the season than just these three accomplishments.
COVID-19 undoubtedly was the defining characteristic of the season. After the pandemic brought the 2020 season to a screeching halt, the team lost not only the rest of that season but also its summer practice. Under normal circumstances, the team spends the summer on campus, practicing in Kenney Gym to improve routines. But because of the pandemic, the team spent the summer of 2020 scattered across the country — or stuck abroad in junior Léo Valentin’s case. It wasn’t until August that everyone arrived on campus and got to work.
The team did so under strict COVID-19 protocols that were maintained for the entire season. The team had to test frequently, using not just the University’s saliva test but also a nasal swab test mandated by the Big Ten Conference.
The gymnasts limited their interactions with those not on the team and spent almost all their time at one of three campus locations: their campus residences, Kenney Gym and Memorial Stadium’s Varsity Room. They didn’t go home once this academic year, not even for Christmas.
“It was rough,” said senior Jordan Kovach. “Part of collegiate athletics is the college part, and we couldn’t really experience being a college student. We were missing a vital puzzle piece of what we were used to and what we enjoyed. It wasn’t easy.”
Something else the team had to work around was the lack of fans in Huff Hall. Normally, the Illini feed off the energy of the crowd while also interacting with the younger fans — tossing out t-shirts, handing out yardsticks of gum for every stuck landing and signing autographs after select meets.
The Illini did none of that in 2021.
“It was definitely different,” Kovach said. “I don’t think a single person enjoyed not being able to have any fans. The atmosphere is completely different, and I do think that has quite an effect on a competition.”
But the team’s adherence to protocols paid off. The Illini had just one positive test result in the last eight months — Danny Graham in February — and the only meet postponed on their schedule was of no fault of their own.
“During the season, I’m sure not a lot of us wanted to (follow the protocols),” Kovach said. “We just wanted to hang out with our friends and see our parents. But at the end of the day, I think what we did was right, and it shows because we were very successful at not getting sick.”
The Illini started the 2021 season with a bit of history: They soundly defeated Northern Illinois in the first-ever virtual meet in the history of NCAA gymnastics. Moving ahead to Big Ten competition, Illinois defeated Ohio State but lost to Penn State a week later by a razor-thin margin of just .15 points.
It was at this point in the season that injuries started to pile up for the Illini, injuries that would play a significant role as the season progressed.
Valentin and freshman Will Hauke suffered season-ending injuries in practice after the Penn State meet. Junior Clay Mason Stephens also was unavailable after this meet due to a minor injury and later traveled to his native Australia in hopes of qualifying for the upcoming summer Olympics in Tokyo. American and Australian travel restrictions and quarantine protocols would not allow him to fly back and forth like he did last season.
Kovach says losing these three gymnasts were the biggest roster losses Illinois endured in 2021.
“We were missing some very big routines, and the spots were too big to fill completely,” Kovach said. “Injuries played a huge factor in how we finished up the season.”
Illinois lost its next meet against Iowa and split a tri-meet against Michigan and Nebraska. Going into the team’s final meet against Minnesota, the Illini suffered another setback when junior all-arounder Hamish Carter came down with a nerve injury in his neck, keeping him out of the meet.
Though Illinois beat Minnesota by a point, the team’s score of 393.800 — down almost 12 points from its previous meet — was a clear indication of the damage injuries had inflicted upon the team and its chances for success.
Going into the Big Ten Championships, head coach Justin Spring was faced with a sobering statistic: 70% of his starting routines — the routines he would have in the lineup to compete — belonged to injured gymnasts.
“Never in my 12-year (coaching) career have I had that many routines out,” Spring said before the championships. “It just so happens that the injuries we’ve had are on our best all-arounders, and it’s costing us so much.”
While Illinois finished fourth in the Big Ten team championship, junior Michael Fletcher won the Big Ten vault title with a score of 14.600, edging out Nebraska’s Taylor Christopulos by five-one-hundredths of a point. Fletcher, an all-arounder who returned to competition this season after tearing his ACL in 2019, had never won a vault title in any collegiate meet before. His title earned him First Team All-Big Ten honors.
“It feels really great,” Fletcher said afterward. “I came back from my knee injury (and) was dealing with some issues on vault, and I’m really proud of myself for overcoming them and having a great vault.”
Skirkey and sophomore Connor McCool earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors for runner-up finishes on pommel horse and floor exercise, respectively. Sophomore Evan Manivong also was named the recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award.
With the nation’s eighth-highest national qualifying average after the Big Ten Championships, Illinois stamped its ticket to the NCAA championships two weeks later. Carter was able to compete that weekend, but it remained an uphill battle for the Illini.
They placed third in their qualifying session to make it to the championship session, where they finished sixth. The Stanford Cardinal won its second consecutive team national championship, defeating Illinois by more than 16 points.
“We just didn’t have the start value to be in contention,” Spring said. “If you take our start values with our healthy lineup, and if we have a perfect day, we could be a 417 team, neck and neck with the best teams in the country. But we just didn’t have that this year.”
But making it to the championship session is a win to both Spring and Kovach.
“Making the finals for NCAAs is pretty good for any team,” Kovach said. “Obviously no team wants to finish last, but with what we were given in regards to injuries, we handled it really well.”
The highlight of the NCAA championships for the Illini was Skirkey, who had the highest pommel horse score in the team’s qualifying session and had one of the few pommel horse routines that hit in the championship session. His score of 14.166 easily captured the NCAA championship and All-American honors.
“From the start, I never really had any strict expectations for my performance,” Skirkey said afterward. “I just wanted to go out there, do the best that I could and keep myself calm leading up to the routine.”
McCool, who placed sixth on floor exercise, also earned All-American honors.
McCool also earned Regular Season All-American honors on floor exercise from the College Gymnastics Association, as did Graham on still rings, Manivong on vault, Skirkey on pommel horse and Carter in all-around.
The CGA also recognized Carter as its Gymnast of the Week Jan. 26 and its Specialist of the Week Feb. 23. Skirkey received the latter accolade Jan. 26, while freshman Logan Myers was named CGA Rookie of the Week a week earlier.
Carter and Myers swept the Big Ten’s weekly accolades Jan. 25 after being named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week and Freshman of the Week, respectively.
Fletcher and Diab also competed in the USA Gymnastics Winter Cup in late February: Fletcher as an all-arounder and Diab exclusively on still rings. Fletcher placed in the middle or at the bottom of the field in almost every event he competed on, but he came away with a second-place finish on vault.
Diab, who won two NCAA still rings championships during his college days at Illinois and won last year’s Winter Cup still rings championship, successfully defended his title with a combined two-day score of 29.800 (14.850 on day one and 14.950 on day two).
While the Illini earned almost 20 individual accolades this season, an unofficial one they earned was “viral sensation.” During Illinois’ meet against Minnesota, Manivong stuck his vault landing and celebrated by pulling his vaccine card from beneath his uniform, proudly displaying it for his teammates — and the Big Ten Network’s cameras — to see.
A video posted to the team’s Twitter account that depicts the celebration has accumulated 3.8 million views (compared to the few hundred the team’s videos usually gets), and the story was picked up by news sources across the country. Stephen Colbert called the move, “a very cool way to raise awareness about vaccination,” while The Athletic’s Olivia Witherite called it “the ultimate flex.”
And it all started out as a joke among Manivong and his teammates, who were trying to come up with fun and creative ways to celebrate a stuck landing.
“It’s an insane feeling,” Manivong said about going viral. “It’s fun to be a part of.”
After a long season of abiding by COVID-19 protocols, seeing gymnast after gymnast go down with injuries, individual championships and accolades and one viral moment, the Illini are now in the offseason.
In the weeks since the NCAA championships, some members of the team took advantage of the somewhat loosened protocols to go home and see their families for the first time since August. Others, like Fletcher, are back in Kenney Gym working on upgrades to their routines. The team also says goodbye to five seniors: Graham, Kovach, Diab, Joel Diaz and Tommy Mistretta, who all graduate in the coming weeks.