McGrath steps up for Hawkeyes

BY NICK GANS | FEBRUARY 24, 2010 7:30 AM

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Most freshmen collapse under pressure.

But Iowa freshman gymnast Matt McGrath is not a normal freshman.

During the Hawkeyes’ last two meets, he proved to be a top performer, Iowa head coach Tom Dunn said. His transition from unseasoned freshman to team cornerstone and building block hasn’t surprised the Iowa coaches.

“We expected him to be a strong competitor,” Iowa associate head coach Dmitri Trouch said. “That’s why we recruited him.”

McGrath performed so far, ranked in the top 20 nationally in the floor exercise (18th) and still rings (14th). His success hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

McGrath earned the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor for his performance on Feb. 6 against Illinois-Chicago during Iowa’s dual meet in Chicago. The award surprised McGrath, but he said he refused to let it affect him.

“It means I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing for the team,” he said. “Getting more would just mean I’m doing what I’m supposed to.”

A team-first attitude has made McGrath a vital part of the squad, Trouch said. Labeled the team “firecracker,” McGrath brings excitement with his obvious love for gymnastics, Iowa assistant Alex Kolyvanov said.

That passion started at an early age. He remembers the first time he hit the gymnastics floor at age 6 during a friend’s birthday party.

He became the center of attention, and his future club coach, Chris McKee, approached McGrath’s parents about the possibility of his joining the team. After one practice, the decision was clear.

“I was always bouncing off the walls and giving [my mother] some trouble in the house when I was a little kid,” McGrath said. “My mom saw I was a little bit tired after the first practice, and it calmed me down a bit. She was convinced.”

With McKee, McGrath learned the basics of team gymnastics. Individual goals were never discussed, McGrath said. Rather, the team’s goals were first.

These traits guided McGrath to choose Iowa over Illinois, Michigan, and Cal-Berkely.

“When I came on the trip, I saw really good team chemistry,” the Wheaton, Ill., native said. “I didn’t see that on many other teams. They didn’t connect as well at Iowa.”

Upon arriving in Iowa City, he developed some goals for 2009 and beyond.

This season, McGrath said he hopes to become an All American on the floor exercise and vault. Next year, improving his pommel horse routine and competing in the all-around top his list.

Summer workouts are integral in accomplishing these feats, McGrath said.

His coaches said having McGrath specialize in the all-around is something they would be ecstatic about, but not at the expense of the progress he’s made.

“It’d be nice for him to become an all-arounder, but we don’t push for someone to become one,” Kolyvanov said. “An excellent five events would be better than six decent ones.”

By the time McGrath graduates, he said he hopes to make the U.S. National Team. As for his team goals, McGrath said he plans on helping put Iowa back in the top six nationally — a post Iowa hasn’t reached since 2005.

“We’re getting there. The team is looking good,” he said. “We’re starting to build things up again.”

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