The Wolverine

June-July 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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JUNE/JULY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 61 BY JOHN BORTON W endy Fallen helped lay the foun- dation for a Michigan gymnas- tics dynasty, three decades ago. U-M head coach Bev Plocki now credits her with playing a role in the Wolverines' first national championship. That's no small bridge, for the 1991 Big Ten Freshman of the Year turned Big Ten associate commissioner of sports administration. The former Wendy Wilkinson waves off that level of praise, hailing Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and a host of conference and school administrators for making seasons happen during COVID. She's incred- ibly grateful one of them involved a title for her former school, though. "I get goosebumps talking about it," she said. More than 30 years ago, the gym- nast — born in Montreal and reared in Mississauga, Ontario — felt a simi- lar ripple of excitement after unof- ficially visiting Michigan's campus. She'd experienced "wonderful" visits to other Big Ten campuses, Fallen noted. Ann Arbor ultimately drew her in. "I fell in love," she said. "The student- athletes on the team were amazing. "It just felt right. I went back on an official visit, and I knew in my heart it was the right place for me. I never regretted it — loved every moment." She became part of what she de- scribed as a "really amazing" fresh- man class. Second-year head coach Plocki was building a powerhouse, and the young Wolverines felt her impact immediately on a program that hadn't really accomplished much. "I knew I loved her enthusiasm," Fallen said. "I knew she was com- mitted to the whole experience. She talked a lot about wanting success in the gym and believing she could turn this program around. "You couldn't help but believe her. She had an energy. She talked about the importance of taking the major you wanted, being prepared for life after sport. What really resonated with me about Bev was her commit- ment to turning the team around, her energy and her dedication to making it a well-rounded experience." Beyond the coach, the team close- ness proved eye-opening to the for- mer club gymnast. "Coming from the club environ- ment, you're really competing for yourself," Fallen recalled. "I knew on my visits, and then [Michigan] cemented it — you're practicing with these other women, every single day, and everyone is there to support one another. "If somebody made a mistake, someone would pick up and try to compensate for it. It was the imme- diate sense of being part of a team. We're best friends, to this day. "That team and others that fol- lowed it were just so committed to turning the program around. If you felt a little tired, or you had a test com- ing up and you were stressed, every single person on that team was going to give it their all for each other." Plocki's first U-M squad finished sixth in the Big Ten. In the face of precisely zero expectations — ones Michigan's women's gymnastics his- tory established — the Wolverines made a huge leap. "In my freshmen year, we came in third," Fallen noted. "My biggest moment that year was being up on the podium as the third-place team, and seeing a lot of surprised looks. People didn't expect it. It was neat. "We knew it. We knew we could be competitive, and nobody expected it." Fallen stuck the landing in her rookie year. She became the first Wol- verine gymnast to win the Big Ten all-around title as a freshman. In ad- dition to capturing Freshman of the Year honors, she earned first-team All-Big Ten status. She barely mentions those achieve- ments. She focuses more on the close- ness of that crew, and the program's rise. She needed every bit of that strong and unselfish attitude as a sopho- more. In Michigan's first event of the year — against Pittsburgh and West Virginia — Fallen's final event of the day became her final event of the year. Fallen's right leg collapsed on the balance beam dismount, a torn ACL rendering her sophomore campaign finished. "Honestly, I remember my first reaction being, 'I am so sorry,'" she said. "That's how Bev had cre- ated this team atmosphere. My first thought wasn't, I hurt my knee, it was, I let my team down. "I actually remember looking over and saying, 'I'm so sorry.' Ali Winski — who is a very dear friend — was set to go after me. I remember seek- ing her out, giving her a big smile and saying, 'I'm okay, I'm okay, you've got this.'" She spent a good portion of the sea- son on crutches, stiff-arming self pity. "I remember thinking, I could Fallen (left) — seen here with teammates Kelly Carfora (center) and Tina Miranda (right) — was Michigan's first freshman to win the Big Ten all-around, then helped the Wolverines win the program's first conference title the following season. PHOTO COURTESY MICHIGAN ATHLETICS WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Wendy Fallen Still Makes Gymnastics Magic

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