From unwanted to NCAA champ
Oklahoma’s former walk-on Michael Squires defends his rings title
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michael Squires’ childhood bedroom was a shrine to the Oklahoma men’s gymnastics team. The young gymnast attended camps at the university and followed the team closely; one day he dreamed he might be a Sooner himself.
When it came to recruiting time, the love wasn’t necessarily reciprocated.
“You’ve got to understand, he was not recruited by anybody,” Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said. “He was from Edmond, Okla. One of my former gymnasts coached him for one or two years, and he begged me to come see him.
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At the time, Squires was vetting potential colleges based on academics, not athletics. But when Williams gave him the opportunity to try to walk on to the gymnastics team at the hometown school that he loved, Squires decided to give it a shot.
“I figured, as long as I’ve been doing gymnastics, which was 12 years, 10 years at the time, I figured I might as well give it another six months just to see if I could make the team that I’d been a fan for so long of,” he said.
Three years later, the gamble has more than paid off. On Saturday night, Squires, now a junior, defended his still rings title at the NCAA NC Men’s Gymnastics Championships in Ann Arbor. His score of 15.800 bettered second-place C.J. Maestas of Illinois by .075 points. One night earlier, Squires also put up the top rings score of 15.700 in helping Oklahoma take second place in the team competition.
“This never happens,” Williams said. “I’ve been doing gymnastics for 25 years at the college level, and nobody has ever done this. Somebody that is totally unheard of at the [Junior Olympic] level, never did anything as a ringman, and to improve the way he did in a year and a half is a testament to how hard he worked and believing in a plan and executing it.”
The first step in Squires’ transformation from a walk on to a rings champion was quitting the other five events. And after a freshman season in which he competed on rings in 10 of Oklahoma’s 12 meets, including the team finals at the NCAA championships, his potential began to emerge.
“I was yelling at him about something […],” Williams said with a laugh, “and I’m like, ‘If you do this stuff in the right order, in the right way, you’re going to be an All-American.’
“Then I was like, ‘You know, you even have a chance to be a national champion.’”
It took the gymnast more time to believe in that potential, but with greatly improved strength as a sophomore, he began to realize Williams’ vision. The turning point came when Squires scored an NCAA season-best 16.000 in a meet against Minnesota.
“At that point, I knew that if I hit a set I could compete with anybody,” he said.
Winning the NCAA championship later that season still came as a surprise, though. And winning a second one this weekend was even harder.
“This year was a little bit more of a grind just because I knew what winning felt like, and I knew the standards that I needed to meet in order to be a repeat,” he said. “So coming into this meet, there was a lot more pressure, I felt like I was in a way expected to come and defend my championship. It’s a tough situation that you’re put in, but you try not to think about it and you try to focus on what you’ve been doing in the gym every day, and luckily I was able to do that.”
Squires’ performance helped the Sooners end the weekend on a high note. One night after finishing second in the team competition for the fourth year in a row, Squires won the rings, junior Alec Robin won the floor exercise and vault, and junior Michael Reid was runner-up on pommel horse.
It was a night that Squires could never have even imagined two years ago.
“I thank myself a lot that I gave myself a chance,” he said, “and thank the coaches all the time for giving me the chance to try out for the team.”