Jan. 14, 2016
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Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, July 29, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2015-16 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The carrot dangling in front of University of Iowa senior Doug Sullivan is one of redemption.
Sullivan’s junior season as a pommel horse specialist with the UI men’s gymnastics team was as consistent as they come. He finished below 14 points just once in nine regular-season competitions, posted a season-high 15.15 against Nebraska and Minnesota, and placed third with a score of 14.95 at the NCAA Championships qualifier.
The Aurora, Illinois, native was one performance away from securing a spot in the individual finals at the NCAA Championships when he made the first mistake of the year.
It was costly.
Sullivan finished in a tie for 29th on the pommel horse with a score of 13.65 — his lowest score since the season-opener of his sophomore season. It is a routine he has relived in his mind time and time again.
“I wasn’t fully prepared,” said Sullivan of the NCAA miss. “I didn’t focus and zone in on that set. I lost focus and if you lose focus for a little bit you can miss a hand or put a hand somewhere it’s not supposed to go.
“If you go to a meet, he stands out and your eyes are drawn to him by the way he looks, swings, is built, and the skills he is doing. It’s a great routine with great start value. If he’s consistent and hits it, there are not a lot of guys in the country that are going to be in the same competitive group as he is.”
“That has been my main motivation, and I am waiting to redeem myself. Last season was good for me, and it happened that I made my only mistake at the end of the year. That’s what’s driving me moving forward.”
Sullivan started in gymnastics as a 7-year-old when his mother, Barb, enrolled him into some classes following his two older sisters’ footsteps. He started competitively at age 10 and got more serious in high school when collegiate gymnastics was something he wanted to pursue.
During his senior year at West Aurora High School, a new coach transferred to Sullivan’s gym at St. Charles Gymnastics Academy and brought talented gymnasts with him. Their presence pushed Sullivan to improve.
“They, at the time, were a lot better than me,” said Sullivan. “I strived to be like them and they were all taking college visits. It was in my head that I wanted to do the same.”
After visiting nearly every Big Ten Conference school, Sullivan connected best with UI head coach JD Reive. He was presented an opportunity to walk-on.
“Coming in as a walk-on, I knew I had to work harder to prove myself and show I was worthy to be with the group of guys,” said Sullivan. “I kept working hard and (JD) saw something in me and kept on me. I just needed a chance.”
Reive saw potential, but knew it was going to take work.
“(When he came in) we knew it was going to be a project because he wasn’t really strong at the event,” said Reive. “He has come in the last four years and he went from walking in with a decent circle to being one of the strongest pommel horse competitors in the nation.
“Now if you go to a meet, he stands out and your eyes are drawn to him by the way he looks, swings, is built, and the skills he is doing. It’s a great routine with great start value. If he’s consistent and hits it, there are not a lot of guys in the country that are going to be in the same competitive group as he is.”
Sullivan has gone from project to All-America contender by training with a vengeance.
“It takes a level of discipline and commitment and an inordinate amount of work,” said Reive of Sullivan’s transformation. “He’s the type of student you want on a team and in a program, and he embodies the concept of get to school, work your butt off, and get better. That’s what we want to see.”
Sullivan competed in 11 meets as a freshman, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. As a sophomore, he tied for 23rd on the pommel horse at the NCAA Team Finals and was fifth on the event at the Big Ten Championships. He set a school record on pommel horse with a 15.250 against Minnesota and Nebraska on Feb. 15.
During his junior season, Sullivan won event titles at the Windy City Invitational, in a meet against Illinois Chicago, and at Illinois before garnering second-team All-Big Ten honors at the Big Ten Championships. He ended the regular season 10th nationally on the pommel horse.
Reive says Sullivan’s size — 5-foot-6, 120 pounds — gives him the body type to be a good pommel horse competitor. It’s also his personality and discipline.
“He’s long and lean to get his hands behind his back,” explained Reive. “On the pommel horse, your life needs to be in order. There can’t be emotional baggage because there is so much pressure when you feel yourself shaking before you complete the event.
“He has the discipline and desire to overcome that and has done it every day since he got here. There have been no hiccups or issues. He was like `This is what I want to do and be better with it.'”
It’s that work ethic that has allowed Sullivan to transcend from walk-on to legitimate NCAA title contender. Sullivan’s goals are to be a Big Ten champion and be in contention at the 2016 NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
“He knows (what it takes), he has been there,” said Reive. “That carrot was dropped in front of him. Because of the event, if he hits everything, if somebody is going to beat him, they have to earn it.”
Sullivan knows he must stay focused and he can’t get sidetracked. When rough days arise, he needs to push through to prepare himself to make good on a missed opportunity.
“I have that taste of wanting to have redemption and finishing my gymnastics career on a good note,” he said.