GymHawks prepare to challenge the Michigan powerhouse


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Members of the Iowa women’s gymnastics team are taught not to watch their competitors during a meet — to keep their backs turned toward the competition. This week, a looming monster will be lurking behind the GymHawks’ backs: four-time defending Big Ten champion Michigan.

The seventh-ranked Wolverines are the conference’s untouchable team. They have won 16 of the league’s last 18 championships and have beaten Iowa in every dual meet since 2004. But at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Field House, the GymHawks will face the giant with a chance, finally, to win.

Michigan has set a precedent of winning, and No. 17 Iowa is just starting to build toward that.

Michigan regards very few Big Ten schools as a threat, so for the GymHawks, this meet is personal.

“I know that Michigan doesn’t see us as competition, and my team knows that,” head coach Larissa Libby said. “For us, that is the motivation, that internal push to prove our worth.”

Iowa doesn’t have to win to make a statement. By merely posing a threat to Michigan, mentally or physically, the GymHawks can prove that they’re capable of competing at a higher level, Libby said.

“I think regardless of whether we beat [Michigan] or not, if we scare them, if we’re close to them, it’s going to be only good for us,” senior Andrea Hurlburt said.

Although the GymHawks have set a lofty goal for Saturday, to challenge the unchallengeable team, their training isn’t changing. Despite the rivalry, the team hopes to avoid being distracted.

“Anytime we go to a meet, we try not to think about our competitors,” Hurlburt said. “There’s no defense in gymnastics, so we can only do what we can do the best we can do it.”

Iowa’s all-arounders Houry Gebeshian, Rebecca Simbhudas, and Jessa Hansen will go head-to-head with three outstanding Wolverines — Kylee Botterman, Natalie Bielstein, and Sarah Curtis. Hawkeye sophomore Emma Stevenson will compete against her best friend since preschool, Katie Zurales.

“I was never very good, and [Zurales] was always a lot better,” Stevenson said. “But she was the person who pushed me to do better because I wanted to stick with her, and now we’re both in Division-I Big Ten schools.”

Stevenson doesn’t think that competing against her best friend will influence her performance. If anything, she said, competing against Michigan and Zurales will make her strive to do better.

“It’s great to compete against rivals who are just a little bit better than us because we get to show them that we are actually better,” she said.

To prepare for Saturday, the GymHawks are trying to forget the consequences of either a win or a loss. They’re trying to forget that a loss won’t change the status quo but that a win — or even just a threat, could prove to the critics that Iowa is a gymnastics program worth being scared of.

They’re trying to forget the urge to prove themselves. Saturday will be just another day.

The GymHawks are squaring up against the most powerful team in the Big Ten, but they’re not intimidated. They’re excited.

“It’s gymnastics,” Libby said. “Everybody’s got to stay on the beam. And that’s the beauty of it; anybody can win.”

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