Men's gymnastics: Minnesota's Shane Wiskus is a 'game-changer' entering Big Ten championship
The first envelope arrived at the men's gymnastics office in mid-January, shortly after the Gophers opened the season at the Windy City Invitational. Coach Mike Burns opened it to find a certificate from the Big Ten, honoring Shane Wiskus as the league's freshman of the week.
Wiskus won the award again on Jan. 29. And Feb. 12. And Feb. 19. Soon, Burns was inundated with enough parchment to paper a wall, forcing him to suspend his usual practice of framing those conference honors for his athletes.
"It was great, but I had seven freshman of the week certificates and not enough frames," Burns said. "I told Shane, 'Just take them. Give one to your parents or something.' It's a good problem to have, right?"
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Judging from Wiskus' rookie season, Burns should qualify for a volume discount at his favorite frame shop for the next few years — and he might need to make a little more room in the Gophers trophy case, too. Wiskus, of Spring Park, got another major honor Monday when he was named the Big Ten gymnast of the year. This weekend, at the Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the athlete Burns calls "a game-changer" will try to boost the No. 2-ranked Gophers to their first Big Ten title since 1995.
The 2016 U.S. junior all-around champion has vaulted into college gymnastics without a hitch. Of the 11 freshman of the week honors given by the Big Ten this season, Wiskus has won all but four, even while taking one week off to rest. He is ranked No. 1 in the country on floor exercise, No. 2 in all-around and No. 3 on parallel bars.
Wiskus also is the youngest of 12 men named to the U.S. senior national team in February, positioning him for a run at the 2020 Olympics. For the next three weeks, though, his sights have narrowed to the more immediate goal of striking gold at the Big Ten and NCAA championships.
"When I came in, I hoped to make a big impact," said Wiskus, 19. "I figured I should be able to do well for the team. So far, I think I've done a pretty good job living up to that, but there's still a lot that has to be done.
"I have some individual goals for the Big Ten meet, but my main goal is to win for the team. I really want to bring back that Big Ten trophy."
As the most coveted recruit in the country, Wiskus entertained offers from many highly ranked programs. He chose to stay home and join the team whose meets and camps he attended as a kid, when Burns saw the first hint of a prodigy.
Wiskus' mom, Tammy, put him into gymnastics when he was 4 to develop his coordination and motor skills. He also played baseball and soccer, but his love for flying and flipping led him to drop those sports after eighth grade. By age 10, he already was participating in national camps, and Burns had taken note of the little guy with the big presence.
"There aren't too many 10- or 11-year-old kids who are super intense," the coach said. "You could see this kid had this burning thing in his gut, like 'I'm going to be good.' He's a kid with very high standards and a very high desire to succeed."
Burns called it a "once in every 20 years situation" to have a freshman excel in men's gymnastics, a sport typically ruled by older, stronger athletes. Well-schooled from the start by club coaches Dale Bullivant and Doug Price, Wiskus has a wealth of experience in high-profile, high-stakes meets, which prepared him to step right into a strong Gophers lineup.
As the Gophers beat 11 of the 13 teams they faced this season, Wiskus won four all-around titles and made the podium 33 times. Senior Alex Wittenberg said it's the freshman's sense of showmanship and flair, rather than any unique skills, that makes him stand out.
"There are a lot of people who can do what Shane can do," Wittenberg said. "But he has the ability to do it so exceptionally. He scores so well because he makes it look effortless. He has the aesthetics we're all trying to achieve."
As good as Wiskus has been, the Gophers are hardly a one-man show. Seniors Yaroslav Pochinka, Tristan Duran and Wittenberg are ranked among the nation's top 10 in two events each, creating a training environment that Wiskus called both humbling and motivational.
At the Big Ten meet, Wiskus expects to challenge for individual titles in floor exercise, all-around and parallel bars. While that would add to his collection of medals — and certificates in need of frames — he's most interested in bringing home the big prize of a team trophy.
"It's great to be part of a team where everyone is working toward the same goal," he said. "It pushes you to be a better gymnast. And we're all incredibly motivated to get there."
This article is written by Rachel Blount from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.