Cats flipping with ‘Mo’-mentum

Column by J.D. Williams

UK gymnastics head coach Mo Mitchell’s path to Lexington started with a question that sparked a personal passion 28 years ago in Lansing, Mich.

A friend approached Mitchell in the stands of a gymnastics meet and asked if he could sub in on a class — a simple task, for just three hours. Mitchell, who didn’t mind taking a little time to oversee backflips and balance beams, agreed to lend a hand.

Two weeks later, his friend approached him again, this time with a check in hand and another question from the club director: Could he come back and teach more?

It was a double dose of good news: He had a check in hand, and it was for a job that he would just as willingly do for free.

“When you do something that you would do for free, and people pay you for it; you never work a day in your life,” Mitchell said. But Mitchell being offered the job is peculiar within itself. There he was, a new instructor teaching a sport he never participated in and barely knew.

Lessons for himself

Mitchell didn’t play much of anything in high school. He was one of 10 children, and his parents taught them that there was only one reason for going to school — to learn and not to play. Mitchell was only allowed to participate in athletics his senior year of high school. He ran track. No beams. No vaults or uneven bars, just him and the blacktop.

Mitchell moved to Texas to work as an assistant coach under world-renowned gymnast and coach Bela Karolyi, and he enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Houston. He picked up much of his technical knowledge of the sport while working with Karolyi, but he soon realized that he wanted to teach a different style of gymnastics. An eight-year stint at Gizi Gymnastics in Houston gave him that opportunity to develop his own approach for training young gymnasts.

His method worked: He became a coach in the truest form while proving that amateur participation in a particular sport is not necessary to master it.

And his parents’ old-school approach with a stern hand in education worked: All of his siblings graduated from college, and the lessons handed down are incorporated into the way he coaches today. Not just during matches, but in life away from athletics.

“It works good in this arena. I instill that in our athletes here. We put a big emphasis on academics,” Mitchell said.

Bringing the fans

Mitchell left Texas in 1997 to be an assistant under Leah Little at UK, where the rest of his skills were fine-tuned. He thrived under Little and was awarded Regional Assistant Coach of the Year twice within the first five years with the program. In 2003, he succeeded Little after her 19th season to become the second gymnastics coach in UK history.

Mitchell took the team to the next level. He started with the season-opening Excite Night extravaganza that Little established to showcase the team. Mitchell turned it into the season meet instead of just a chance for the public to see the team without competition. The opening meet was the foundation that the program’s fan base was built on. The team has recorded top-10 rankings in attendance in three of the four years that Mitchell has served as head coach. The average of 2,819 fans per event last season ranked sixth nationally.

Now and building the future

“Just Finish.”

It’s the ultimate game plan in the dying seconds of a nail-biter that elevates your blood pressure to Mt. Everest’s peak, before settling once the buzzer sounds.

But for Mitchell the strategy is not just set to overcome the obstacles for the deciding minutes late in an event. That particular message stretched over all 93 days of the 2007 season for the Cats.

It turned into the team motto expressed by Mitchell to a young but talented team a year ago, competing on the biggest platform of their lives.

And faced with enormous challenges every night, the team responded with moments when the freshmen looked like veterans in disguise, and other times, when they looked just like freshmen.

Although the team stayed ranked nationally for most of the season with an average score of 196.200, its performances fell in conference play to an average of 194.800, which resulted in 0-6 record against Southeastern Conference opponents and an overall 8-17 record.

Now, with last year in the rear view of a program speeding toward prestige with another top-25 ranking, it’s time for the team to act on the lessons taught in the previous season.

Simply put, it’s time to turn words into wins.

Finding a new champion

All the attention heading into the 2007 campaign centered on a group of highly regarded freshmen whom Mitchell brought into the program.

Emilie Rymer, Emily Green and Hillary Ferguson, all sophomores now, headlined a 2007 freshman class that also enlisted Jacque Behrendt and Jamie Reimann.

UK has not had an SEC champion since 1996, when Jenny Hansen took the conference for her fourth consecutive year. Although it’s been a while, some of Mitchell’s sophomores can challenge for an SEC championship by the time they graduate, and Rymer has the best shot of the five.

Midway through last season, the all-arounder caught steam and kept rolling. In the final four meets of the year, she led UK in scoring with a personal best 39.400 against Texas Woman’s University.

But to rise to the level of competitors for the conference title, Rymer, along with the rest of her class, will have to start now with a strong showing against Auburn at Excite Night tomorrow. The season-opening spectacle is the first in a long list of difficult conference opponents the Cats will meet this season. All seven schools that have gymnastics programs in the SEC — Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana State, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky — are ranked in the top 25. Georgia and Florida are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.

But Mitchell is confident still, and his team is up for the challenge. He said this year is going to be the “most exciting season in UK history to date.”

And he’s not worried about the schedule.

“We have a difficult schedule, but we should have a difficult schedule because we’re a good team. Good teams should compete against good teams.

“We’re ranked 24th, which is fine. What we’ll do is we’ll keep a chart and watch what we do, and we’ll keep going up and up the chart.”