An All-American in the Blink of an Eye

April 26, 2011


Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It took Matt McGrath a few mere seconds to earn All-America honors. In that short amount of time, the University of Iowa men’s gymnast sprinted 20 yards, vaulted into the air, performed multiple flips, and stuck the landing. Such is the nature of vault, where a blink of the eye can determine injury or heroics.

It was all heroics for McGrath, as he vaulted his way to All-America honors and a fifth place finish at the NCAA Championships to tame the vault, and provide a standout finish for the program under first year head coach JD Reive.

“There is a little window of opportunity in vault,” said McGrath. “There is a lot of flipping going on in a span of about half a second. A lot can go wrong real fast, and a lot can go right real fast. It just happened to go right for me.”

McGrath hit three exceptional handspring double front vaults to cap off an exceptional individual season by Iowa’s team leader, despite being an underdog in the event. The Wheaton, Ill., native entered the postseason not ranked within the top-20 on the vault.

It all started with a near-record breaking performance at the NCAA Qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on April 14. McGrath scored a 16.250 to place fourth overall in Session II of the qualifier. His vault was a half a 10th away from tying the school record set by Geoff Reins in 2008, but more importantly, it advanced McGrath through to the championships.

McGrath’s vault the following day in the team competition of the NCAA Championships scored a 16.050. The score tied for seventh out of 51 gymnasts in action, and advanced the phenom through to the final day of competition on to the individual event finals.

With All-America honors up for grabs, McGrath seized the moment with a fifth place finish. He scored a 15.900 to garner postseason accolades. For McGrath, the award is something that hasn’t entirely registered to him yet.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said McGrath. “It happened last week, and honestly, I’m still trying to get my bearings about it. It’s neat having that status, but fifth is just the starting point for me. I want to get on the podium next.”

McGrath provided a bright spot for the team on more than just vault. He finished the season ranked 10th on floor exercise, and also set the school record in the event earlier in the year with a 15.500.

It wasn’t all about the results from McGrath that made the difference according to Reive. It was the leadership qualities he possessed as the team transitioned to a new system.

“Matt is the epitome of what we want out of this,” said Reive, a three-time Assistant Coach of the Year at Stanford. “He didn’t say anything bad or complain, he did exactly what we asked out of him and got the results from it. He really embraced this training process.”

The training process provided a drastic shift in style for the team, who had to rapidly adjust to a new training regimen. Reive uses 10 years of data to organize specific training cycles to peak his team’s performance — a gymnastics scientist, if you will.

“I need them to understand how what we’re doing in October relates to what we’re doing in March,” said Reive. “There are certain times where I want them to feel like Hell, and certain times when I want them to feel fantastic.

“I need them to trust it and surrender to this process, and let me take them to where they need to be to fulfill their potential.”

The training and effort from Iowa gymnasts made the difference this season, as the team broke a variety of records and had six student-athletes qualify to the NCAA Championships. Most notably, the Hawkeyes broke the school record for highest team score with a 351.800.

The cupboards certainly won’t be bare for Reive as he attempts to take the program to the next level in 2012. Reive needs to replace seniors Mike Jiang, Ben Ketelsen and John Haines, but he will have 14 gymnasts back from this season, including McGrath.

For Reive, that is something that has him setting the bars higher than they have ever been for the program.

“I love it here,” said Reive. “I’m really excited about athletics here and the small-town, big-town feel this place has. I’m excited to put this team on top, which I know I can do in a short period of time.

“I’m asking myself things like ‘how can I elevate this program, how can I get more fans in the stands, and what would it mean to bring a national championship to Iowa City?’ — and I’m incredibly excited to answer those questions.”