Knaeble sisters set to square off at Pavilion

by Michael Dougherty

Biblical history tells us that the epitome of sibling rivalry lies in the story of Cain and Abel, the two eldest sons of Adam and Eve.
Although it does not run as deep, or with such devastating consequences, there will be an excellent example of sibling rivalry at the Sports Pavilion on Saturday night.
Gophers All-American gymnast Mindy Knaeble will be competing against her sister Bridget, a Michigan freshman, for the first time her life.
The two began their gymnastics endeavors simultaneously 13 years ago, and each has gone on to enjoy considerable success. They both attended Totino-Grace high school, in Fridley, Minn.
Mindy, a 21-year-old senior, is the defending Big Ten champion on the balance beam, and was the 1996 Big Ten champ in the floor exercise. In that event, she owns nine of the top 10 scores in Gophers history.
At the same time, Bridget was dominating Minnesota high school gymnastics, winning the all-around event, the uneven bars, and the floor exercise in both her junior and senior seasons in high school. She was also a member of the 1997 Junior Olympic National Team.
While the two both feel a bit of sibling rivalry, they are happy to have the chance to finally compete against one another.
Bridget, speaking from her dorm room in Michigan, said, “I’m really excited to compete against Mindy and Minnesota. It will be great to have our family there supporting the both of us.”
Mindy, meanwhile, has a wait- and-see attitude toward the showdown.
“It will be interesting to see how Bridget will compete against me,” she said. “I’m not exactly sure if she will be gunning for me, but I know she’s always calling me to find out how I scored after our meets.”
Both of the sisters’ teams have fared well early on. With their win over Alabama, which was ranked sixth at the time, the Gophers jumped from 13th to fourth in the national rankings. This is the highest the team has ever been rated.
Michigan comes to town as the sixth-ranked team, after beating Ohio State 190.650 to 190.150. Bridget, in her first collegiate meet, scored a 9.725 on both the vault and the floor exercise.
The competition between the Knaeble sisters is not the only one that will be on display Saturday night. The coaches for the respective teams also have a rivalry going.
Although the Wolverines has won six consecutive Big Ten titles, Gophers co-head coach Jim Stephenson, who is in his sixth year as head coach and first as co-head coach with his wife Meg, is confident that this is the year to unseat them as champions.
When asked whether he thinks his team can dethrone Michigan, Jim Stephenson was emphatic.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We beat them last year in a couple of competitions, and we know we have a better team this year.”
Adding to the rivalry is the fact that one of Jim Stephenson’s former assistants, Scott Sherman, is now an assistant for the Wolverines.
But perhaps the most stinging jab that the Gophers’ took in the rivalry was when Bridget chose Michigan over Minnesota.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Bridget said. “But I felt that they had the most to offer.”
When asked of her sister’s choice, Mindy was candid: “I was very disappointed, especially because she chose Michigan — our arch rival.
“It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if she would have gone to UCLA or some place like that. But Michigan?”
Jim Stephenson also was disappointed when Bridget decided in favor of Michigan.
“Bridget was at the top of our list that year,” he said. “The first hour of the first day that it was legal to recruit her, I was visiting her at her parents home,” he said.
If you would have asked Jim Stephenson about his chances of getting Bridget to attend Minnesota at that point, he would have considered her a shoo-in.
“We have a great rapport with the Knaeble family, so it was natural that Bridget would come with us,” he said. “But ultimately, the decision was hers, and there is nothing you can do except wish her the best.”
Despite the many attributes that Mindy and Bridget bring to their competitions, Stephenson points out another important characteristic which the two share — a very supportive family.
“When we recruited a Knaeble, it wasn’t just Mindy or Bridget, it was hundreds of relatives.
“In fact, I think the Knaeble’s constitute a large portion of the population of Minnesota,” Stephenson said jokingly.
Stephenson’s exaggerations aside, the Knaeble family does generally number in the fifties during the home meets.
Nancy and Charles Knaeble, Mindy and Bridget’s parents, are always at the meets. Nancy also said that because Charles is the oldest of 10 brothers and sisters, his side of the family generates a lot of support.
Nancy and Charles, who live in New Hope, Minn., were both supportive of Bridget’s decision to attend Michigan.
“We’re just happy to be able to see her compete,” Nancy said. “It was her decision, and we know she’ll do well for any team she competes with.”
When the Knaeble sisters face-off Saturday, sibling rivalry might rear its ugly head. But it probably won’t be of biblical proportions.