The early stages of grief have come and gone. Four months after the Gophers men's gymnastics program received its termination notice, the anger has subsided, the bargaining finished, the depression set aside.
The final phase arrived some time ago, as coach Mike Burns and his athletes prepared for Saturday's season opener against Iowa. "As a team, we've accepted it," senior Henry Meeker said. "It's still a terrible decision, but it's not as much in our minds now. We're ready to take this season on."
The eighth-ranked Gophers have only three months left in their time at the U, just six regular-season meets and one postseason before the program ends a 118-year run as a varsity sport. The final chapter didn't start the way they hoped, as Iowa — another program shutting down after the season — defeated them 393.650-387.050 at Maturi Pavilion.
But getting back on the pommel horse, and the rings and the vault and the bars, helped the Gophers find some measure of peace amid the pain. In their first meet in 11 months, they fist-bumped and cheered wildly through their masks for freshman Noah Duran, who won the pommel horse title, and high bar champ Donte McKinney.
The season concludes in April, when the Gophers will host the NCAA championships at Maturi Pavilion. The dismantling already has started, following the U's decision to cut men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track and field because of financial and Title IX concerns.
Senior Shane Wiskus, the team's star, is in Colorado Springs training toward the Olympic trials; he is unlikely to rejoin the Gophers until the postseason. Assistant coach Kostya Kolesnikov left the program in January to continue as Wiskus' personal coach. Burns has started working with the university's recreation and wellness department to transition men's gymnastics to a competitive club sport next year.
While Burns said reinstating it at the NCAA level "is a long shot," he is exploring a proposal to create a new gymnastics facility that would fund the program. Saturday, he thought only about the season ahead, and how to help his team craft a satisfying conclusion.
"When this happened, I went to my go-to philosophy," said Burns, the Gophers' coach since 2004. "Life is all about adjusting. Things don't always go according to plan, and our guys are really learning that lesson here.
"They've been pretty positive as a group. They know they have a job to do. And they want to win."
Making the most
The matchup against the No. 10 Hawkeyes started the schedule on a poignant note. About three weeks before the Gophers announced their sports cuts, Iowa dropped four sports, including a men's gymnastics program established in 1922.
Pandemic restrictions left the Pav nearly empty, save for a few family members and friends. The Gophers missed Wiskus, who typically contributes five or six points to the team score, and some nagging injuries forced changes to lineups and routines. They also made some "silly mistakes," Burns said, perhaps from a lack of focus.
"We gave away a few points," he said. "I hate to lose. But I guess if I have to lose to anyone, Iowa being in the same situation we're in, maybe it's a little less painful."
Burns worried about his athletes throughout the fall, wondering how they would cope with the emotion surrounding the program's final season. They went through some rocky stretches, when motivation was scarce and skill development slow.
Once the schedule was announced in early January, Meeker noticed the atmosphere in the gym began to feel more normal.
"This team is very, very persistent," he said. "We've been through a lot, and we're still putting up very good gymnastics. We're ready to do everything we can to make the most of our last season, and we're excited to see what we can do."
For now, they will have to do it without Wiskus. The three-time Big Ten gymnast of the year originally planned to compete with the Gophers this season, then stay on campus to prepare for the Olympic trials. He moved to Colorado Springs in November because he was concerned about how his training would be impacted once the program shut down.
Burns hopes Wiskus might return for a couple of late-season dual meets, though he could participate in the Big Ten championships even if that doesn't happen. Wiskus also can compete at the NCAAs as long as the Gophers qualify as a team; that is a near-certainty, since 12 of the NCAA's 15 programs will make the field.
Where to next?
Junior David Pochinka said the Gophers have "gone past the phase of sadness," becoming extraordinarily close through all the upheaval. Many of them, including him, plan to stay at the U after the program ends.
Wiskus and Meeker are among four seniors, and McKinney, a sophomore, already has signed a letter of intent with Nebraska. The rest of the Gophers will decide whether to leave gymnastics or compete at the club level, while Burns considers a potential new model for the sport.
As president of the College Gymnastics Association, he teamed with that group last fall to develop a plan for a self-supporting program. The proposal involves buying a facility with privately raised funds and establishing a gymnastics club that would generate revenue through classes, lessons, camps and hosting events. It also would create a new Gophers women's team in acrobatics and tumbling, an emerging NCAA sport.
The plan projects enough revenue in its third year to cover most of a slimmed-down budget for Gophers men's gymnastics, as well as the costs of the new women's team. The proposal has been sent to athletic director Mark Coyle, U President Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents.
Though Coyle has called independent fundraising "an unrealistic option" to save sports, Burns hasn't given up.
"If we go that route, it's going to be me doing it," he said. "It would be a labor of love."
Burns has promised his team he will shoulder whatever burdens he can this season, freeing the Gophers to enjoy and excel as much as possible. He is urging them to be as adaptable as they were during the early part of the pandemic, when some of them brought a pommel horse into their living room so they could keep training.
Still, it's impossible to shut out the emotion completely. Meeker first attended Gophers meets when he was a baby, with his father, Brian, a Gophers gymnast in the early 1980s. His heart aches for teammates who will not get four years in maroon and gold, and for young Minnesota gymnasts who will get none at all.
"I've grown up with this program,'' Meeker said. "This has meant so much to my family. It's such a shame it has to end."
With their time running short, the Gophers are committed to making that ending as memorable as possible.
"Everyone is ready to do what we do," Pochinka said. "Our goals are the same as always. We're trying to win trophies and do our best. And maybe we can go out and do something really big."