It is not a glamorous apparatus, nor a particularly popular one. Among gymnasts, the pommel horse is nicknamed “the pig,” underscoring its reputation as a frustrating, challenging piece of equipment that bruises both legs and egos.
Ellis Mannon knew none of that when he was introduced to the horse as a 9-year-old. The Gophers senior has since become a virtuoso, a testament to an athlete who embraces the difficult. Mannon, 21, won the NCAA title on pommel horse last spring — with a routine that included moves he created — and continued an outstanding year by making the field for this weekend’s U.S. gymnastics championships in Pittsburgh.
The Indianapolis native likes a good challenge outside the gym, too. He is majoring in chemical engineering and economics, is a classically-trained violinist and is scheduling his summer training around a full-time internship at a cereal factory. “He’s a thinking man’s athlete,” Gophers coach Mike Burns said, “the kind that comes around every 20 years or so.”
It’s taken years of grueling repetition for Mannon to tame the pommel horse, testing his appreciation for its unique rigors. Still, when everything clicks — which is often — his fluid, confident showmanship makes it look easy.
“I enjoy it, but there are days when I just can’t stand it,” said Mannon, the first Gophers men’s gymnast to win an NCAA title in 12 years. “With pommel horse, you have to practice as much as you can — and you have to be on top of your mental game, or you’re going to fall off.
“At meets, there are a lot of people who do pommel horse just to get their all-around score. They see my horse routine and think, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ That’s kind of an ego boost. But this event can definitely humble you, too.”
Mannon immediately fell for the sport when an aunt enrolled him in a gymnastics summer camp. He soon teamed with club coach Gene Watson, a pommel horse specialist. With his extreme flexibility, calm demeanor and analytical mind, Mannon was built for the event; with Watson’s expertise and enthusiasm, he grew to love it.
He chose to attend the U over Stanford because he felt the Gophers wanted him more. Assistant coach Russ Fystrom, a former Gopher who won a Big Ten title on the horse in 1973, kept Mannon moving forward. In only his second college season, Mannon finished second in pommel horse at the Big Ten and NCAA championships, and he won both titles as a junior last spring.
His routine showcases strength, grace and a cool steadiness, as well as a touch of creativity. Mannon invented two variations on the “flair,” in which the gymnast balances with his hands on the horse while spinning with his legs outstretched and separated in helicopter fashion. It’s a spectacular, crowd-pleasing skill, which helped Mannon overcome pressure to deliver one of the finest performances at the NCAA meet.
“He’s got some innovative skills that really set him apart from the competition,” Burns said. “Pommel horse is a long-term project. He’s been well-trained since he was a youngster, and he’s been blessed with desire, discipline and determination.”
In 2011, Mannon won the pommel horse title at the U.S. championships in the junior 16-18 division. He made his senior-level championship debut last year and tied for 15th in the event, but his second-day score of 14.850 was the seventh-highest at the meet.
Mannon also competes in the all-around, taking sixth place at the Big Ten meet and 11th at the NCAA championships. His goal is to finish his college career with another NCAA title next spring, then wind down his days in the gym with an appearance at the 2015 U.S. championships, which will be held in his hometown of Indianapolis.
He won’t be abandoning his thirst for challenge. Mannon’s engineering career and a violin waiting to be played again will help fill the void left by the pommel horse, the pig that became a Stradivarius in his hands.
“Having some success on it definitely helps you enjoy it more,” he said. “I know when I do a good routine, I usually get a little reaction from the crowd. That’s kind of cool.”