Jan. 28, 2009
By Larry Watts
If the work ethic of his teammates is anywhere close to that of sophomore Chris Cameron, then Michigan could well be on its way back to the top of the men's gymnastics world.
The sophomore from Winter Haven, Fla. is usually the last one to leave practice, estimating he spends four to five hours per day perfecting his skills. The normal workout for the Wolverines lasts three hours, but Cameron spends about one hour prior in rehab and an another hour after just working on the "little things" in his routines. However, he isn't one bit worried about burnout.
"I tend to go a little gung-ho in my approach, but I love gymnastics," he says. "I don't get motivated by half-going at anything I pursue; I want to fully indulge in it. If I don't do that, it's not worth doing. I probably push my body perhaps further than I should, but I feel as though I give myself plenty of time to recover."
Cameron has been setting the example since a young age. Born with hemihypertrophy, a condition that left him with the lower half of the right side of his body smaller than his left, he underwent an operation at the age of 12 to make sure his legs ended up the same length. Doctors removed a portion of his growth plate between his tibia and fibula in his left leg, leaving him with four active growth plates in his right leg and three in his left.
"The doctors did their math right on the growth, but the muscle size and bone structure in my right leg is still smaller than my left," he says. "The only thing it really affects is my running, where I'm a little slower in my runs to the vault than others, but I've been blessed to be able to work with it and it hasn't held me back.
"I was pretty free to do anything while growing up. I still have to do extra strength training to try and build the muscles in my right leg. My right leg just doesn't run in the same structural manner as my left and I have to be careful not to make any awkward landings on it."
Cameron's mother enrolled him in gymnastics at the age of 7 and it took him only two weeks to move over to the club team. By the time he arrived at Michigan, he had competed in the Junior Olympic Nationals from 2003-05 and won state and region championships at Level 10 in 2005.
When it came time for a college selection, Cameron knew he would end up in the Big Ten. "The SEC and ACC don't offer men's gymnastics and the Big Ten was one of the only conferences with actual conference competition," he says. "As I was growing up, I was always watching international, USA and NCAA gymnastics. My first memory is Michigan winning the NCAA title in 1999 and then Penn State won it the following year."
Michigan, Penn State and Iowa all recruited Cameron. His final decision came down to either the Wolverines or Hawkeyes.
"Two of my club teammates had gone to Iowa," he says. "But what it boiled down to was I felt the program was stronger at Michigan and it really seemed secure within the school. The facilities at Michigan are just amazing and they really know how to treat their gymnasts."
"I had been one of 14 kids on the men's Junior National team, so I expected to make an impact right away. I respected the leadership on the team, but I knew I could help the team win."
However, Cameron tore the labrum in his left shoulder before the start of the season and was held out of both the high bar and still rings. Finding out he wouldn't need surgery, he rehabbed his shoulder to the point he could compete in the rings midway through the year.
According to Cameron, the first season was a bit of a disappointment. He stood third on pommel horse and fourth on parallel bars while helping Michigan advance to the Super Six on the first day of the NCAA Championships. However, he was off his game on the second day and didn't advance to the finals.
With his shoulder problem behind him, Cameron has moved into the top all-around slot for the Wolverines this season. He opened the year in spectacular fashion while leading the Wolverines to the Windy City Invitational title. While posting the top all-around score (81.10), he took first in pommel horse and tied for first on rings with career bests of 15.10 and 14.80, respectively.
"I love the pressure of having my teammates look to me to be the guy to close out an event or set the tone," he says. "It's so much easier to perform when you have this adrenalin rush. The reward when you do well is so much fun.
"The big difference for me this year is I never really had an offseason to work on new skills sets and to get stronger during high school. But I had an eight to nine month break this year and that has really helped me jump a level.
"I stayed at Michigan all summer, trained and got very focused," he adds. "When you're a kid, you're out to have fun, but you have to approach this as a job now. Planning and having a strategy have really been a big plus."
Cameron rates vault as his weakest event because of the sprinting and he figures to be among the nation's best on pommel horse.
"I can put together a routine (on pommel horse) that nobody else in this country can do and very few people in the world can do," he says. "My start value (16.00) is one of the highest in the country."
Next week, Cameron and seven of his Michigan teammates will head out to Las Vegas for the Winter Cup, which carries a great deal of weight in the selection of the Senior National team. That will be a big step toward competing in the World Championships and Olympics, Cameron's ultimate goals.
"That's the height of this sport," he says. "I want to get those international assignments so I can compete for America and eventually make it to the Olympics."
When the Wolverines return home, their eyes will be focused on the Big Ten championship, something they haven't won since 2000, and a high finish at the NCAA Championships.
"We may not be as gifted as some teams out there, but when it comes to putting our noses to the grindstone and realizing our potential, I think we can be untouchable and beat any team," Cameron says. "It's been a decade since the greatness of Michigan gymnastics and I think we have the group to bring it back."