The floor of the transformed Crisler Center was filled with gymnasts, but these gymnasts were not just any athletes.
The superheroes of the Oakland Gymnastics club team showed off their routines at a pre-meet exhibition which showcased children on the autism spectrum. These children were a part of the second annual Autism Awareness Meet hosted by the Michigan women’s gymnastics team Saturday.
In addition to taking place alongside a Big Ten meet, the purpose of the competition was to increase awareness of autism and how it affects those who have it. The gymnastics team did a series of informational segments on autism that appeared on the jumbotron between each event.
Each segment featured a team member who explained different facts, tips for care-giving or general knowledge about those who fall on the autism spectrum. Additionally, two young girls with autism showed off their own gymnastics and cheerleading routines between events, proving that having a disability was not going to hold them back.
The Autism Awareness meet was a part of the Let’s Go Do campaign held by the Athletic Department, which gives student-athletes the opportunity to participate in volunteer and community service opportunities throughout the year. Before the competition, spectators were able to stroll through the Hall of Honor area in Crisler Center and talk with representatives from four different autism-based organizations: Els For Autism Foundation, the Gymnastics Doctor Autism Foundation, the Sunfield Center and Jack’s Place For Autism. A select group of Michigan student-athletes also hosted a fan area that included face painting, poster making and autographs.
The meet drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to Crisler Center. Noticeably, a majority the fans were mostly young girls under 10 waving the signs they created in the fan area. The meet experience was especially heart-warming and encouraging for the girls who competed.
“Personally, my old coach had twins, one of them with Down syndrome, so any topic on mental disability is close to my heart,” said senior Sachi Sugiyama. “With this meet, I really enjoyed learning from the kids and interacting with them. It’s a really eye-opening experience, and you gain an appreciation for the little things.”
For others on the team, it was a chance to gain new insight into autism as an out-of-classroom experience.
“I’m majoring in special education, so this meet was really cool for me because I got to learn additional things about autism and work with the children one-on-one, which gives a different perspective,” said sophomore Nicole Artz.
This wasn’t the first time Michigan has hosted meets for a greater cause. The Wolverines raised money for former football coach Lloyd Carr’s fund at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Michigan coach Bev Plocki wants to continue this particular meet next year in hopes of drawing an even bigger crowd.
“It gives me goosebumps to see these kids doing their gymnastics or cheer routines,” Plocki said. “So many of these kids are just like everybody else. They have some really special skills, and it’s great for people to get to see them.”
The competition proved to be a success, not only for Michigan, but also for the competing team — Nebraska. Though the Wolverines defeated the Cornhuskers, 197.300-195.850, both teams participated in an introductory video stating their honor and support for being a part of this meet.
But Saturday’s meet wasn’t just about the competition — it was about bringing people together to learn more about autism, which affects one out of 68 children in the United States. And with an increased understanding of autism, everyone at Crisler Center left a winner.