Abby Heiskell achieved the gymnastics equivalent of a game-winning buzzer-beater on Saturday to carry Michigan to its first national championship.
With the score tied between Michigan and Oklahoma in the final rotation of the day and Heiskell as the only gymnast remaining, the junior mounted the beam with all of the hopes and dreams of her team on her shoulders.
For the entire 60 seconds of her routine, her teammates and their fans at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, cheered for her every move — their screams growing with intensity as she progressed through the routine.
Heiskell took a tiny hop on her dismount, but it didn’t matter. She knew.
She jumped up and clutched her hands over her heart before making her way over to her excited teammates, who immediately embraced her. Together, they clutched hands and anxiously awaited her score. On the other side of the beam, standing by the floor, stood the Oklahoma team, which remained in a circle — with the gymnasts keeping their eyes fixed on one another and not the scoreboard.
In the end, Heiskell scored a 9.925 and lifted Michigan to victory behind a 198.2500 final score — .088 of a point ahead of Oklahoma.
Head coach Bev Plocki, in her 32nd season with the Wolverines, knew her team had the makings of a championship team, and she told her gymnasts as much throughout the season.
“It’s one of those moments as a coach,” Plocki said. “We say a lot of things to our athletes; I’m just glad they were listening to me and they believed me, because I have believed in this team for a long time. And I just wanted them to really realize and embrace how good they are and what they had the capability to do.
“What they did this year is nothing short of amazing. I’m incredibly proud.”
Michigan’s win was the culmination of an incredible weekend of gymnastics full of nail-biting moments and oh-so-much drama. And if you missed any of the action, fear not. Here are the biggest takeaways from the event.
The breakout star
Heiskell might have clinched the victory for Michigan, but it was sophomore Sierra Brooks who was the Wolverines’ standout all weekend long. She notched the highest individual all-around score in the competition on Saturday at 39.7750 — and had the top score in Friday’s first semifinal session for a second-place finish overall.
Brooks said the key to her success was trusting in herself and knowing what she and her teammates were capable of.
“I think we walked into this and we just told ourselves, ‘Do your gymnastics. You don’t overdo it; you don’t underdo it. Trust yourself,'” she said after the win. “And that’s what we did today. We came in confident, and it paid off.”
With two more years of eligibility left, and with Heiskell and 10-time All-American Natalie Wojcik returning for their senior seasons next year, Michigan might already be a favorite to win the title again in 2022.
There has never been so much parity in NCAA women’s gymnastics
For much of Saturday, the championship was realistically in reach for three teams — Michigan, Oklahoma and Utah — and it seemed like one massive score or devastating fall could determine it all. It made for an exciting and somewhat unusual finish for the event.
In a sport in which just six schools had combined to win all of the 39 total titles before Saturday, Michigan became the first since Oklahoma in 2014 to become first-time champions — and the seventh champion in history.
Of the eight schools that advanced to Fort Worth, four were looking for their first title. California, which finished in third place during Friday’s first semifinal session, came up short but also recorded its first NCAA title in program history, as Maya Bordas took home a share of the title on bars.
Will this be the start of a trend of first-time champions? Only time will tell.
Not so great to be a Gator on Saturday
Florida held the top spot in the rankings for the entirety of the 2021 regular season. Led by junior Trinity Thomas, the team was the obvious favorite for much of the year to take home the title. But it struggled in the postseason — in part due to an ankle injury that prevented Thomas from competing on any event outside of bars for six weeks — finishing in a surprising third place at the SEC Championships last month and just squeaking in to Saturday’s team finals.
Thomas made her return to all four events on Friday but showed signs of rust and had an atypical fall on beam on Saturday in the team’s first rotation. As Payton Richards had already fallen, it had a devastating effect. Thomas’ score of 9.175 had to be counted in the team’s total, and the Gators went into the second rotation already trailing third-place Utah by 0.6625.
As the Gators were the top team in the nation on beam entering the postseason, it was a particularly shocking result — and they never recovered.
“The end result was not what we wanted, but I think a lot of us are feeling like, ‘Hey, we gave everything we had,'” Florida senior Megan Skaggs told the school’s website. “Tonight didn’t go the way that we wanted, of course, but we have a lot to be proud of.”
The COVID-19 season
After a season filled with restrictions and protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic, it probably shouldn’t have been surprising the final weekend was impacted with a scare.
During warm-ups ahead of the first semifinal session on Friday afternoon, the entire California team was escorted off of the floor due to contact-tracing protocols. For roughly 40 minutes, the team was kept off the floor, before finally being allowed back with all of its members. Competition was slightly delayed in order to give the Golden Bears a few minutes to prepare after the unexpected distraction.
While it was a slightly surreal scene and caused momentary confusion for those in the arena and watching at home, it was apparently par for the course for the team.
“I have to tell you that our team is prepared for scenarios like this,” Cal co-head coach Justin Howell told the school’s website. “We do so many interesting things in practice so that they’re always prepared for anything to happen. If there was a team that can handle that kind of stop-and-start adversity that we had today, our Bears were the team that could do it.”
There were thankfully no such scares on Saturday. As the arena allowed a limited crowd — approximately 25% capacity — it actually felt somewhat like a typical event, especially compared to many of the meets this season that had few or no fans.
Webb wins the all-around title
In one of the most impressive individual showings in recent memory, Oklahoma’s Anastasia Webb won the all-around crown on Friday — as well as a share of the vault and floor titles.
So, yes, it was a very good day for Webb, even if the weekend didn’t end exactly the way she had hoped. Having spent much of her collegiate career in the shadow of her world champion teammates Maggie Nichols and Brenna Dowell, the Sooners’ senior seized the opportunity and cemented her spot among the program’s all-time greats.
If you haven’t seen any of these highlights, do yourself a favor and watch Webb on all four events below. Her stick on vault in the team’s final event is the exclamation point you didn’t know you needed.
Blanco, the beam queen
There were multiple winners for all of Friday’s event titles — except on beam. Alabama’s Luisa Blanco absolutely dominated that competition — just as she has done for much of the season — and notched a 9.9625.
Even if you saw it live during the broadcast, you’re going to want to watch this one again.
A sophomore, Blanco is one of many breakout stars we can look forward to seeing next season.