ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A sense of dread seemed to fill the arena each time a gymnast took to the pommel horse Saturday in the individual event finals at the NCAA NC Men’s Gymnastics Championships.
With all eyes isolated on one event at a time, the most unforgiving pommel horse took one accomplished gymnast after another and demoralized them.The apparatus shook Ohio State senior Michael Newburger, the defending NCAA champion, and slowly broke him down until he had to drop off and regroup. Three gymnasts later, Michigan senior Sam Mikulak, who later won his record-tying seventh NCAA title, caught his leg on a skill and ran out of gas as he stumbled through the rest of his routine.
So then it was a breath of fresh air when the 10th and final gymnast, Minnesota junior Ellis Mannon, mounted the pommel horse and began confidently whipping his legs around like some sort of eggbeater.
While most gymnasts prefer skills that keep the legs together as they navigate the apparatus on their hands, Mannon spread his legs and flew around the horse with the showmanship that brought the crowd into what Minnesota coach Mike Burns described as a “crescendo.”
“I do a lot of flair work,” Mannon explained. “It’s a little bit unusual; it requires a little bit of flexibility, and they’ve kind of gone out of style a little bit because it doesn’t upgrade the value, but it does add a little bit of wow factor to it.”
Mannon wowed more than the fans with his flairs. Moments after the Indianapolis native stuck his landing, the judges awarded him a winning score of 15.425. Oklahoma junior Michael Reid was second, .25 points behind Mannon, while Newburger and Mikulak finished at the bottom of the field in ninth and 10th, respectively.
“It was kind of a perfect setup, being the last guy up and doing probably the best routine of the year for him,” Burns said. “He couldn’t have asked for a better finish. As a coach, that’s what you hope your athletes will do. He was just spot-on tonight.”
The win completed a night of redemption for Mannon and the Gophers. As a team, Minnesota failed to make the “super six” team final on Friday night. Mannon, meanwhile, missed his goal of qualifying for the parallel bars final, and his 11th-place result in the all-around Friday fell short of the top-eight finish he was hoping for.
But on the final night of competition, Mannon was one of four Gophers who qualified for an event final. And one year after Mannon finished runner-up to Newburger in the pommel horse, he won the hardware he was looking for at the Crisler Center on the Michigan campus.
“It felt great to come in this year and move up a spot,” he said. “It was really the only goal that I had.”
Going into his routine, Mannon said he had a sense that some of the earlier gymnasts had struggled. He didn’t pay close attention to any of their routines, though, and said he didn’t even know Reid’s then-leading score until he saw his own.
“There were a lot of nerves in the pommel horse final,” he said. “I was nervous too, but the most you can do is hit your set.”
And that’s exactly what he did. In a routine filled literally and figuratively with flair, featuring some original skills, Mannon delivered one of the memorable performances of the weekend.
“When you are building momentum with those flair moves, you hear the crowd start getting into it,” he said, “and you really know that you’ve got it.”