Jan. 22, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Rochelle Robinson is still fairly new to Michigan State and the East Lansing area. The Chesapeake, Va., native is struggling to get used to her first actual Midwest winter, since last year fooled her with 50-60 degree days around New Year's. In fact, she admits that she never knew a thermostat could record negative numbers until she came to MSU.
She misses her friends and family, which is common of most college freshmen and sophomores that have traveled far from their hometown. You laugh when a gymnast from the South talks about how she misses all the fried food and greens that she had become accustomed to. Yet with all the new surroundings she has been struggling to experience, one has been the toughest to come to terms with.
Dealing with being at the center around which Michigan State is building its women's gymnastics program.
Robinson made headlines as a freshman last season when the talented freshman vaulted to the first perfect 10 in school history. The impressive feat occurred on Feb. 10, 2007, at the Fox Run Invitational, marking just one of five perfect scores on the vault in the nation last year.
Whether it was a numbing feeling, or just her typical shy Southern personality, Robinson did not feel the same way her Spartan teammates and head coach Kathie Klages did following her performance.
"We were at an away meet and nobody was really expecting it," Robinson said. "I wasn't thinking about it; I just did it. It took me a while to realize what I had done. It set in a lot quicker for her teammates than it did for me."
In fact, Klages says that the coaching staff has sat Robinson down and told her that she is going to have to accept what she has done, because it means so much to the program.
"It's a big deal to us," said Klages. "She is rather shy about it and doesn't want a whole lot of accolades that come with it, but we are trying to get her to deal with it."
Robinson was in a unique situation last season as a newcomer. She captured 11 individual event titles throughout the season, including seven on vault, and two each on the floor exercise and bars. A first-team All-Big Ten selection, Robinson was also the only Spartan to qualify for the NCAA Championships and just the eighth non-alternate individual qualifier in school history.
Klages said it was tough for a freshman, especially one as shy as Robinson, to experience NCAAs without her team, but notes that she came back to campus a new person.
"It was tough for her to go through that by herself, but the one thing she brought home from NCAAs is that she saw how the top teams were so disciplined," Klages said. "She is more comfortable this season, because she knows that to expect. She does not want to go back to NCAAs alone."
The Spartan mentor points out that her program is not among the nation's top five or six teams in the nation, but even Robinson noted that they are not far away. She has a better understanding of what it will take to reach the national championships as a team, which is certainly what Klages wants to see.
"The amount of raw talent she has is incredible and we are trying to build our program around Rochelle and her class," Klages said.
Last season was also an eye opener for Robinson with respect to the differences between the club level and competing in college. She says that at the club level it was doing whatever it took to succeed individually, but a team approach is what is need at this level.
"When I started last year, I didn't know what to expect," she said. "As the season went on, I still had the club mentality to do everything for yourself. But the more I realized it, the more you do things with your team, the more you accomplish. That made my season a successful one."
It is that approach, and the understanding that the Spartans are close to becoming one of the nation's top teams, that has helped keep the momentum going for the young MSU product. Despite being hampered by an ankle injury this past fall, Robinson has only competed in the vault and the bars in two events this season. Out of two vault performances and one on the bars, Robinson is a perfect 3-for-3 in wins.
"I believe that I have become a person that likes to push, push, push a little more," Robinson said. "I think I have gained a lot of discipline over the past year and now I know what I need to do to get things done."
Getting back to full strength is first on Klages' list.
While the coaching staff continues to convince Robinson she is one of the top vaulters in the country and should be a participant in the finals at nationals, Klages also knows how talented Robinson is in the all-around.
"Vaulting is definitely her best, but I would say the floor exercise is a close second," Klages said. "Those are the leg events as we call them. She's very good on the bars as well and has been working on upgrading her dismount this year. She just won the event last weekend and I really think she can compete with the best of the them in that event as well."
That leaves the beam, an event which both Robinson and Klages called her nemesis, although she did manage to post a career-best 9.825 on the beam at No. 2 Florida last March.
"Me and beam have never clicked," Robinson said. "I am approaching it now in a different manner. I will fight for anything now. Last year I was passive, but this year I am more aggressive in my events."
Klages is pleased to hear about the newfound aggressiveness and hopes that Robinson can help lead the Spartans in the right direction this season. While Robinson had a strong finish to last season, the Spartans did not.
"She had her best performance at regionals last year and we want her to guide the team in that direction this season," Klages said.
Just one more thing Robinson has to get used to.