By Jo-Ann Barnas - Special to USA Gymnastics
It would be too easy to label it a full-circle moment, a golden link connecting the past and the present for Kurt Golder.
Truth is, the longtime Michigan men’s gymnastics coach isn’t much for nostalgia, certainly not if he’s the focus. But for posterity purposes – besides, who doesn’t like a good story? – let’s briefly turn back the clock a few decades.
It’s 1971. Picture a skinny-legged, curly-haired boy of 16 pulling into campus at the University of Michigan. He’s with a carload of fellow high school gymnasts and they’ve just driven four hours from Alpena to Ann Arbor to watch the NCAA men’s gymnastics championships.
“We sat up in the nosebleed section,” Golder said with a laugh. “I remember I didn’t have a real loyalty to any school back then. Michigan didn’t do well. It had won (the national title) the year before. What I heard later was that (Newt) Loken, the coach, was so focused on running a great championship that maybe that contributed.”
Now it’s four decades later and Golder is talking on his cell phone in a restaurant parking lot near Ann Arbor. He has been asked about last April, when Michigan hosted the NCAA men’s gymnastics championships for the first time since 1971 in front of a boisterous crowd at the Crisler Center.
Yes. Dinner can wait.
It was a storybook finish times two for the Wolverines: They repeated as national champions and Sam Mikulak went on to win his third NCAA all-around title. The team victory also gave Golder his fourth national title since he took over the program 19 years ago. His team title years: 2014, 2013, 2010 and 1999.
“I’ve won four, but I’ve had good enough teams to win 10,” said Golder, 60. “Having said that, there was never a point last year where I was worried or thought, ‘We’ve got it.’ I always think that any team in the Super Six could make it.”
Now a new year is underway at Michigan – and so far, so good.
Golder’s 5th-ranked Wolverines kicked off the season with a runner-up finish to Illinois (428.100 to 422.950) at the 45th annual Windy City Invitational on Saturday night (Jan. 17) at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago.
“I was pretty pleased overall with it,” Golder said. “We had a hit percentage of 78; that’s better than some of our midseason meets last year. But I was very disappointed with p-bars (parallel bars) and still rings; we have to resolve that. We missed three (routines) on both – and both of those events we’re strong in. But we’ll be fine. Sometimes skills and routines work in practice and not competition. In some cases we’ll change routines, and others we’ll give it another shot.”
This season has arrived with a big change for Golder: For the first time in four years, Michigan no longer has Mikulak to depend on – at least not as a college athlete.
A 2012 Olympian and 2014 U.S. world team bronze medalist, Mikulak is still involved at Michigan as a volunteer assistant. He has said that he’ll continue to make Ann Arbor his training home base through the 2016 Rio Olympics.
With Michigan competing in Puerto Rico over spring break, Golder said Wolverine assistant coach Xiao Yuan will be with Mikulak at the AT&T American Cup on March 7 in Arlington, Texas.
Golder said it has been fun watching Mikulak transition from student-athlete to coach. He said their relationship is the same – but different.
“He’s a more of a colleague,” Golder said. “Technically, he’s very good (as an assistant). And he and I are quite similar in that we’re both easy-going guys. His style isn’t super demanding or get-in-your face.”
Of course, the description fits Golder’s coaching style as well.
“What I’ve learned is that it pays to be positive – to always have a positive attitude,” he said. “I’m not a yeller. I’m not super hard on the guys. I think in my first couple of years (coaching at Michigan), I was so crazy – and what I mean is driven – like that parent who always knows when you did something wrong. I had these global eyes. It’s a good thing I’m not like how I was back then. I find that life is much easier, too, if you have a positive approach. It might be to a fault – like, ‘Oh, there’s Kurt again, everything is positive,’ – but it’s just who I am."
As for this season, no surprise Golder has a sunny outlook for his Wolverines as well.
“One of the things that’s unique is that we’re better than people think we are,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, you lost the whole ring team. You lost Sam and you lost Syque (Caesar),’ and on and on.”
But Golder said he looks at what Michigan has – and is gaining. And that includes gymnasts such as Adrian de los Angeles, who was injured for much of last year with a knee injury. And two gymnasts who were red-shirted last year because of injuries, Michael Strathern and Reid Swanger, are back this season as well. Strathern was second on vault (15.00) at the Windy City Invite.
In addition, the Wolverines return fifth-year senior Dylan James, who was an All-American on pommel horse in 2013, and Stacey Ervin, who has the third-highest floor exercise score in NCAA history. Ervin was runner-up to C.J. Maestas of Illinois on floor (15.150 to 15.05) in Chicago on Saturday.
Michigan also boasts one of the top recruiting classes in the country, highlighted by Dmitri Belanovski, who took third in the all-around (83.55) at the Windy City, and Marty Strech.
Golder said that there’s an upbeat feeling in Ann Arbor for another reason: the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as Michigan’s new football coach.
“I was at the press conference when he was introduced,” Golder said. “I think he’s going to do a great job. Getting him on board has lifted everybody’s spirits.
“Things are good all the way around.”
With Golder, would you expect anything less?