One year later, the men’s gymnastics team found itself in a similar situation: top-ranked and favored to win as the NCAA Championships approached. For the seniors, Ter-Zakhariants and Bryant Hadden, and the fifth-year competitors, Sho Nakamori and Jason Shen, this was their last shot at winning the national title; the sense of urgency was high. The week leading up to the meet did not assuage the tension that accompanies a competition of such high stakes. Something was off in each practice for no tangible reason. Assistant Coach David Durante, a former Stanford gymnast and alternate in the 2008 Olympics, assured his team that their uncharacteristic mistakes did not indicate a lack of preparation. Still, the memory of seeing Oklahoma’s name move from second to first place on the scoreboard last year haunted the returning members of the team.
To add more drama to the situation, Jason Shen sprained his knee during the final intra-squad before the competition. Shen had undergone invasive knee surgery in 2007 after a faulty vault landing resulted in the tearing of all four crucial knee ligaments as well as a complete kneecap dislocation. In November, Shen tore his ACL yet again, but opted out of repairing it until he completed his career. “I knew I was taking a risk every time I got on the equipment,” he said. For five months, Shen trained and competed on a torn ligament before one bad landing ended his career at the most inopportune moment. Now it was up to Bryant Hadden to replace the irreplaceable Jason Shen. This was hardly the way the team had hoped to enter the National Championships.
Once the team arrived in Minnesota, they got back into their groove, though some serious issues remained. Despite the team’s top finish, the Cardinal did not deliver their best performance of the year by any means. “We didn’t really do that well,” Josh Dixon, a sophomore, remarked, referring to the various mistakes that could have cost the team the title. Uncharacteristically, Ter-Zakhariants struggled on vault, the first event of the night. Kyle Oi, a sophomore, was expected to contribute an impressive score on the pommel horse, the event for which he earned All-American honors last year. Unfortunately, he lost his rhythm during the event and fell from the apparatus.
Hadden conveyed an attitude similar to Dixon’s as he reflected on the team’s final NCAA performance. Though he did not intend to watch any other team, he could not help but notice the six consecutive stuck landings by the Sooners in their first event: parallel bars. A wave of intimidation swept over him as he prepared to follow Oklahoma’s performance as the last-minute replacement for Shen. Putting his nerves aside, Hadden delivered a clutch parallel bars routine for his team in an emblematic display of the team’s dynamic. Over the course of the competition, the team’s confidence never wavered, despite the several mistakes that were made. “Throughout the year, we learned that each of us has each other’s back,” Greg said of his team. “Mistakes happen, and that’s the reality, but we learned how to not worry at every little thing that did not go as expected.”
It is a testament to the excellence of the team that even without a stellar performance, the men managed to emerge victorious. Michigan, who edged out Oklahoma for second place, gave their best performance of the year and still could not touch the Cardinal. With so much depth, it was very difficult to make the Stanford lineup this year. This forced each team member to raise his game each day in practice. On the wall of the team’s locker room hangs a piece of paper saying, “2007-08: Preseason Poll — #1; NCAA Finals — #2 (0.45 points). 2008-09: Preseason Poll — #1; NCAA Finals — Earn it.” Every Stanford competitor had done just that: earned it.
For the past several years, the Stanford Men’s Gymnastics program has worked under the mantra “the strength is in the struggle.” For the seniors and fifth-year athletes, the struggle began long before the 2008-2009 season. Their strength, ability, and first place trophy belongs not only to them, but to all of the past team members and coaches whose own struggles made this year’s victory possible.