Feb. 18, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com

Like a diamond in the rough, Michigan freshman Natalie Beilstein shines more brilliantly the more polished her gymnastics become.

Standing just five-feet tall, Beilstein hails from Butler, Pa. -- the same hometown as Michigan head coach Bev Plocki - and impressed the Wolverines' head coach early on. The two not only share a hometown, but Plocki's high school coach was the youngster's club coach, although Beilstein did not know of the connection before a meeting at the gym one day.

"I'd known of her for awhile, and watched her compete and thought she was a little trickster - she's like a toy," said Plocki. "She came to camp one summer here, and she could do just about anything you asked her to do tumbling or vaulting-wise."

Plocki saw Beilstein's potential, while Beilstein knew Michigan's coach could really help her improve her gymnastics.

"I knew I was good on floor and vault, but I wasn't top-notch on beam and bars," said Beilstein. "(Plocki) really broke down every little detail for me on beam, and I pretty much had to start over, which is a difficult thing for a gymnast. I knew if I worked hard I could eventually make the beam line-up, which I did in three meets. She's really helped my confidence as a gymnast, and I know the more I practice, the better I get."

Beilstein hard work has already paid off with four vault titles in UM's first six meets, and four Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards this season. She posted a career-high 9.900 against Minnesota on Feb. 13, and she ranks 15th in the nation in the event.

"We saw something in her that we really felt she would develop into a great college athlete," said Plocki. "So far, she's proven me correct.

"She's been a delight to have in the gym - she's happy every day, she makes people laugh, she's hardworking, but has a great aura about her. She has come such a long way from September until now on both balance beam and bars that she has actually been competing in our beam lineup and doing a very good job. She's trying to learn a new release move on the bars, but I don't know how long that will take. I foresee her in the future as being a strong all-arounder."

Plocki is not the only person that has seen Beilstein's potential, not just as an athlete, but as a person throughout her life. Mother Mary and father Joe brought Natalie home at four months old to join their family of four sons at the time. The Beilsteins knew they wanted a big family, so in addition to having four biological children, the couple also adopted a son and two daughters. The siblings range in age from 24 to nine with an eight year difference between the six eldest and the family's youngest daughter.

"Having a big family was always exciting - there was always something to do," said Natalie. "And, there was always someone to turn to if you were having a bad day."

Mary said Natalie was always an active child, and they knew she was going to be very short, an asset in gymnastics.

"My sons all took gymnastics, and they were going to be too tall for it, but it's good for hand-eye coordination for other sports," said Mary. "(Natalie) was only two years old and out there mimicking everything they did and the coach finally said, 'Natalie, why don't you come and do this with us?' Pretty soon, the coach said they were putting her in a class, and then they put her on a team."

A proud mother, Mary still chokes up remembering the day she found out Michigan was going to offer Natalie a gymnastics scholarship. The Beilsteins have only missed one gymnastics meet this season, and plan on being in Ann Arbor when the Wolverines host No. 5 Utah, and their daughter is certainly excited for the opportunity.

"As a freshman, going against these big teams is really exciting," said Beilstein. "In club, you already knew what to expect. I've watched these girls on TV, but have no idea until I get out there what they're going to do. I love it. I love the challenge and I love the pressure, and trying to show off that I'm the best and our team is the best."

Michigan hosts Utah on Feb. 19 - the first of five opponents that competed at the 2009 NCAA Championships. UM will also take on Illinois, Penn State, Georgia and Alabama to close out the regular season.