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Friday March 24th

UNC gymnast Michelle Ikoma finds her own way

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Michelle Ikoma almost didn’t make it to Chapel Hill.

Eight years ago, North Carolina gymnastics coach Derek Galvin was looking to complete his recruiting class. His target: Danielle Ikoma, an accomplished high school gymnast and Michelle’s older sister by two years.

Galvin had been planning to fly to Naperville, Ill., to visit Danielle for a while, but days before his flight, he received a phone call.

Danielle had just committed to Stanford. He had lost the recruiting battle, and the elder Ikoma sister would not be suiting up for his Tar Heels.

But the coach still had his plane ticket.

And on a whim, Galvin flew to Illinois anyway, hoping that maybe he could make the trip worthwhile. After all, the gym where Danielle trained was full of up-and-coming gymnasts, and surely her coach would be able to steer him in the right direction.

When Galvin arrived at Arena Gymnastics, he turned to Dan Miller, Danielle’s coach. Galvin was looking for talented young gymnasts, but equally as important, he was looking for smart young gymnasts. Miller’s answer?


Fast forward eight years and Michelle Ikoma has developed from a high school standout into the undisputed leader of the UNC gymnastics team. Now in her fifth year, Ikoma looks back on the experience fondly and realizes how close she almost came to not being a Tar Heel.

“When it came time to look at schools, I really did want a school that had both the high-caliber academics but also the high-caliber athletics,” she said. “That list is pretty short, and Carolina’s certainly at the top of it.”

A family legacy

Ikoma didn’t grow up only doing gymnastics. By the time she was three, her parents already had her involved with gymnastics, soccer, ballet and more.

But when running became too much, Ikoma stopped soccer. And when she started begging her mother not to go, she knew ballet wasn’t for her.

While she had always enjoyed gymnastics, it wasn’t until Michelle saw her role model —her older sister Danielle — doing it that she made up her mind.

“Gymnastics was what I found the most fun, but it was also what my sister stayed with,” Michelle said. “I think I always wanted to follow in her footsteps when I was younger.”

Danielle knew Michelle looked up to her from a young age but was happy to spend time with whom she called her best friend.

“We were both put into the same gymnastics classes and programs, but we were in different age groups, though,” Danielle said. “My parents always tell me stories of Michelle wandering into my group because she wanted to be with me.”

The younger Ikoma continued to train and improve her skills, but the idea of collegiate gymnastics was still foreign to her. Again, Danielle set the precedent, garnering interest from a number of schools her sophomore year, and once again, Michelle followed suit.

“When I was in eighth grade, I realized that there was the potential to do gymnastics in college,” Michelle said. “From that point forward, I really made it a goal to get to the level where I would have the opportunity to compete in college.”

She maintained that dream for another four years, and finally, in her senior year, Michelle committed to UNC. For the first time, she was creating her own path.

Branching out

College quickly forced several changes in Michelle’s routine.

Instead of focusing on herself as she had in club, Ikoma learned that collegiate gymnastics was team-oriented. Even though she was contributing and making an impact as a freshman, she became more well known by her teammates for her cheering.

“She is great at encouraging everyone if you ever see her at our competitions. She just gets so enthusiastic and supportive, especially when one of us does a good job, or even if we don’t,” Janell Sargent said.

The only thing that could match Michelle’s growth as a teammate was her growth as a competitor. In her first season alone, Ikoma scored above a 9.7 in the vault, the uneven bars and the floor exercise.

Heading into her sophomore year, Michelle seemed prepped for a breakout season as a leader and as a gymnast. Unfortunately for her, she never got the chance.

Less than a week before the first meet of the year, Ikoma was practicing her floor routine when she felt something rip in her ankle. She had torn her Achilles tendon, forcing her to take a medical redshirt.

“From the moment the injury happened, it surprised not only me but our athletic training staff and everybody on the team, but she never got down, and there were dark moments — you can’t have an injury like that without having some reservations,” Galvin said.

“But the day that she had the injury, she was back in the gym later that day cheering for her teammates and encouraging them.”

Ikoma attended every practice that season, and when she wasn’t in the gym, she was undergoing rigorous rehab somewhere else. After a year of rehabilitation and therapy, Michelle returned, only now she is one of UNC’s key leaders.

Above and beyond

Since returning from injury, Michelle cemented her status within the program. She has achieved new personal bests in nearly every category, but even more impressive are her accomplishments away from the gym.

Ikoma, an exercise and sports science and business double major, has been named to the East Atlantic Gymnastics League All-Academic team every season. The senior captain recently won not only the 2014 ACC postgraduate scholarship, given to only three athletes annually per ACC school, but also the Wells Fargo postgraduate scholarship.

“She’s obviously incredibly smart,” Sargent said. “That’s part of the reason why at some point we all call her Wiki-Miche, Human Google, our walking encyclopedia … She’s always able to answer your questions.”

If all goes according to plan, Ikoma plans to use the scholarship money to earn her master’s in computational science and engineering.

“I’ve applied to a graduate program at Harvard, which I won’t hear back from for another month or so, and honestly I think I’m their dark-horse candidate, but I figured, what the heck, I might as well apply anyway.”

Even if Ikoma doesn’t take part in the program at Harvard, she has several potential job opportunities she is exploring as backups. But even she realizes that future is a distant one indeed.

For now, Ikoma has plenty on her plate; this week alone she is attempting to balance both her midterms and her return from a calf injury against Maryland.

In her five years at UNC, Michelle has evolved from Danielle’s little sister to a talented gymnast and eventually into the undisputed emotional leader of the gymnastics team.

And it’s all because Galvin took that plane ride.

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