Willow Grove gymnast aims at NCAA all-round title

Joanna Sampson won the NCAA championship in the floor exercise.             University of Michigan
Joanna Sampson won the NCAA championship in the floor exercise.             University of Michigan
Posted: May 29, 2013

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Less than a month after winning an NCAA national championship in the floor exercise, Joanna Sampson rested at the University of Michigan's women's gymnastics facility, her legs in a pretzel in her chair. She looked relaxed.

Despite a 2013 season in which the Upper Moreland High graduate earned three all-American honors, those close to Sampson say she still has work to do. With practice and consistency, the 20-year-old has the ability to win an all-around national title as a senior in 2014.

But for now, she smiled and laughed - no pressure, not anymore.

This is the maturation of Sampson. When she arrived at Michigan three years ago, a product of Ricochets Gymnastics Club in Willow Grove, Sampson snapped at coaches and berated herself. She was so focused that she bordered on stubborn.

In a way, Sampson's attitude drove her to early collegiate success. She finished first in the vault during the NCAA regionals in 2011 and competed in the Super Six. The next year, she was named to the all-Big Ten championships team.

On the floor, "the height and the amplitude of the tumbling passes that she does just blows everybody else away," Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. "She does a double layout on her first pass that you could walk underneath. It's so high and so pretty."

Yet Plocki allowed that early on, Sampson could be "extremely intense." She drew out the first word for emphasis, then added, "and extremely hard on herself."

The same attitude that gave Sampson an edge often got in the way.

"I was maybe putting too much emphasis on being perfect," Sampson said.

It hadn't always been like this. At age 3, Sampson did flips and tumbles around her house. She soon enrolled at Ricochets and stayed 15 years, through high school. But by the time she reached Michigan, she had spent so much time around the sport that she nearly forgot how to enjoy it.

That persisted for two years. Then, last summer, before returning home to Willow Grove, Sampson went to Michigan's practice facility for individual work. She started to play around.

"I don't know what happened," said Sampson, who was "just trying all sorts of new skills that I had never done before and just kind of chucking things for the fun of it. I don't know - just something came back that I hadn't felt in a long time, really truly loving the sport.

"Since then, I've just been having so much fun with it."

With less pressure on herself, Sampson surged as a junior and team captain. She was named the Big Ten women's gymnast of the year and placed third nationally in the all-around competition, in addition to winning the floor exercise title. She is a favorite to be named female athlete of the year at Michigan in July.

This summer, Sampson again will train at Ricochets. The expectations will be higher than ever, but not the tension.

"She's matured, and she's kind of softened a little bit around the edges," Plocki said. "It's absolutely realistic for her to set her goals to be an all-around national champion."


Contact Zach Helfand at zhelfand@philly.com.

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