Freshman Gagnon vaults over border to join Gophers

Joel Gagnon hopes to make the Canadian national team one day.

Freshman Joel Gagnon runs swiftly during his floor routine at the Sports Pavilion on Jan. 24.

Liam James Doyle

Freshman Joel Gagnon runs swiftly during his floor routine at the Sports Pavilion on Jan. 24.

Brad Bobel

For freshman Joel Gagnon, going from Canada’s brutal winters to Minnesota’s wasn’t that much of a change of scenery when he transitioned to college.

Though Saskatchewan-native Gagnon wasn’t originally on head coach Mike Burns’ radar early in the recruiting process, the Gophers have benefited from Gagnon’s performances so far this season.

“He kind of found us,” Burns said. “He sent us tapes and meet results, and we liked what we saw, and we followed up on that.”

Gagnon is the first Canadian to compete for Minnesota.

“We’ve looked at other Canadians before but never brought any onto the team,” Burns said. “But once he got here, all of a sudden, the northern border opened up a little.”

Gagnon has stepped up this season. And considering more than half of Minnesota’s gymnasts are freshmen, Gagnon’s performances have contributed to the Gophers’ success.

Gagnon debuted with a 14.55 on the floor and a 14.10 on the vault in his first collegiate meet.

“[Having Gagnon] helps the learning curve a lot,” senior Steve Jaciuk said. “A lot of other freshmen can kind of watch him and learn from him.”

While Gagnon’s performances speak for themselves, when he has something to say, his teammates listen.

“He doesn’t speak much, but when he does speak, it usually has some added value to it,” Jaciuk said. “He’s definitely the most logical guy [on the team] and the voice of reason.”

At the start of Gagnon’s collegiate career, he had to adjust to a new team atmosphere.

He said he didn’t compete on a team during high school, which made Minnesota’s first meet this year a huge learning experience.

“I [have to] say, I was pretty nervous. You want to show the coaches that you are ready and that you deserve a spot,” Gagnon said.

Over the season, Gagnon has had ups and downs during meets, but coaching staff said his underlying personality has always been evident.

“He’s had a couple really good meets and a couple where he has struggled on a few things,” Burns said. “He’s got a cool demeanor; he doesn’t get too amped up and doesn’t let too much bother him.”

That cool demeanor was tested last weekend at the Gophers’ meet in California, where Gagnon met some friendly faces from the Canadian national team.

“I [hadn’t] seen them in a while, and it was good to see what some of the guys were doing,” Gagnon said. “Going into nationals in May, it is nice to see what I’m going to go up against.”

Gagnon plans to compete in the Canadian Gymnastics Championship this spring with hopes of securing a spot on the national team.

“During [last weekend’s] meet, I could tell that they were watching [Gagnon] like a hawk, but I didn’t want to say anything … to add any nerves,” Jaciuk said. “I know he was peering over his shoulder a lot during events.”

Jaciuk said he could tell Gagnon was hoping to turn some heads.

“He was trying to make a statement, and I think he did,” Jaciuk said. “Coach [Burns] and I have talked, and we think he has a good chance at making the national team.”

Gagnon competed in three events, scoring a 13.95 on the floor, 14.25 on vault and 13.60 on the high bar.

It was a special opportunity for both Gagnon and the Canadian coaching staff, which got a preview of what’s to come in May.

“Our national team head coach was there, so obviously any time you can give off a good impression to him is a good thing,” Gagnon said. “So I was trying to stay focused, but at the same time, I wanted to see what they were up to.”