Feb. 7, 2014
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Matt McGrath came away with more than a piece of cake from a birthday party nearly 20 years ago.
The event, in honor of a kindergarten playmate, had a gymnastics theme and the high-energy McGrath enjoyed himself while making an impression on one of the chaperones.
"The girl that had the birthday was a gymnast at the time so she did one of those parties where you run around, jump over mats -- simple stuff 5-year-old kids would do," McGrath said. "The coach who was doing it saw something in me and got me on the team pretty quick from there. They thought I had way too much energy and pretty good coordination."
The native of Wheaton, Ill., also participated in soccer, basketball and baseball, but McGrath said his parents encouraged him to do gymnastics as well -- a scheme to tire their son who tended to bounce off walls at home.
"They put me in the program and I excelled more in that sport than anything else," McGrath said. "I specified, and it worked out."
McGrath became Level 10 (ages 14-15) national floor exercise champion in 2006, Illinois state floor exercise champion in 2007, and state vault champion in 2008. In 2009, he accepted a scholarship offer from Tom Dunn and became a Hawkeye.
As a freshman, McGrath competed in 11 meets, placing third in vault at the NCAA Qualifier to advance to the NCAA Championships, where he finished 45th. He was named Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week.
Dunn retired after the 2012 season and JD Reive was hired as his replacement.
"It has been kind of hectic because I have been through four or five coaches now because I came in during the transition," McGrath said. "I had Tom Dunn my freshman year and then JD my sophomore year, which is basically the polar opposite of a laid back coach going into a super-aggressive, very structured coaching situation. It has been good so far and has made me grow as a gymnast and person."
As a junior, McGrath competed in nine meets and advanced to the final of the Big Ten Championships on vault. It was early in the season when he landed low after a vault and felt his knee pop. After surgery and plenty of time off, the injury is finally in the past.
"My knees are as good as they have ever been, even better than before the surgery," McGrath said. "My shoulders are good, all the joints are working, so I'm probably in the best shape I have been in since I came to school."
Now a redshirt senior, McGrath is an elder statesman within the Hawkeye program. He sat out the entire 2013 season after suffering the cartilage explosion in his left knee. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes earned a spot in the NCAA team finals for the first time since 2005 and had their highest national finish (fifth) since 2000.
"It was a building year for me as well as for our team," McGrath said. "They had their most successful year in 10 seasons, so while that was exciting to watch, it was also kind of tough to sit on the sidelines and not help out too much."
The return of McGrath to the lineup for floor, rings, vault, and parallel bars will strengthen a Hawkeye team that includes twice as many freshmen and sophomores as it does upperclassmen.
"He brings a lot of experience," Reive said. "He is aggressive, has this warrior work ethic, has a lot of big gymnastics -- it's very dynamic, it's fun to watch. At the same time he has a leadership capacity to him that will take the underclassmen and give us that extra edge that we need to be where we want to be this year."
Where the Hawkeyes want to be is at least two positions higher than they were in 2013. They will rely on guidance from captains McGrath and Lance Alberhasky to get there.
"Last year our goal was just to make it into the second day at NCAAs," McGrath said. "Once they got to the second day of the competition, it was like a weight was lifted off their shoulders. They did it and hadn't planned on advancing too much further because the teams we were competing with were really good.
"Now once we get into that second day, hopefully we'll have an even bigger job to do once we get there. That's what we'll be training for all season: being mentally focused and physically strong enough to be ready to take on two days of intense competition."
An academic All-Big Ten honoree, McGrath is majoring in biomedical engineering.
"You decide that I'm an athlete, and I'm a student-athlete," McGrath said. "Those are the two most important things we are here to do at school, so those are the main things I focus on."
The ninth-ranked Hawkeyes are home twice during the 2014 season -- on back-to-back weekends -- beginning Feb. 7 against No. 5 Illinois in Carver-Hawkeye Arena (7 p.m., CT). They remain home Feb. 15 against Minnesota and Nebraska (noon).