‘It felt like I put my hands in snow’: Matt Sullivan’s improbable return to competition for Gophers men’s gymnastics

Sullivan had anterior ulnar nerve transposition surgeries on both of his elbows over winter.


Kelly Hagenson

Courtesy of Gopher Athletics

by Michael Lyne, Sports Reporter

Minnesota junior Matt Sullivan made his return to the pommel horse lineup for the Gophers men’s gymnastics team to compete over the past two meets after having surgeries on both of his elbows over this past winter.

In October 2020, during practice, Sullivan began to have severe pain in his hands and fingers. He knew the nerve issues he was experiencing needed to be looked at by a doctor.

“My hands got really, really cold,” Sullivan said. “It felt like I put my hands in snow. It was just really weird symptoms.”

While experiencing sharp nerve and elbow pain, Sullivan also suffered from weakness in his hands, a significant loss of grip strength and a tingling, numb sensation from his elbow to his fingers.

Sullivan quickly got referred to hand therapy, where they created a brace for his elbow after a couple of visits. However, the nerve issues he was still experiencing remained unsolved.

In early November 2020, the Gophers gymnastics team had to quarantine due to a couple of positive COVID-19 cases. The quarantine process delayed Sullivan’s ability to seek more help as his elbow issues continued to linger.

After finishing quarantine, Sullivan sought out the help he needed by visiting the team’s doctor before Thanksgiving. This visit is where he heard devastating news from the team doctor: His Gopher gymnastics career would be over.

“The team doctor basically said I would be done for the season,” Sullivan said. “She was going to refer me to specialists and that I would need surgery.”

Hearing these words was when Sullivan began to realize that his Gopher career was coming to an even quicker end after the University decided to cut the men’s gymnastics program following the 2020-21 season last fall.

A mighty decision

Following the crushing news from the team doctor, Sullivan had a decision to make: One of the team’s protocols was if an athlete chose to go home for Thanksgiving break, they could not participate with the team until the end of Christmas break.

However, the decision came quickly; it was a no-brainer for Sullivan to return to his hometown of Aurora, Illinois, to have his elbow surgery.

Sullivan wanted to spend time with his family, and he would not be practicing with the team anyways. He would need time after his surgery to recover, and his parents were also recovering from COVID-19 at the time.

The road to recovery

On Dec. 12, 2020, Sullivan had surgery on his left elbow after his surgeon agreed with the specialists that it was necessary to fix his nerve issues. Sullivan would undergo an anterior ulnar nerve transposition, which moves the nerve in front of his elbow so it is no longer irritated.

The transposition surgery was a success and Sullivan left the hospital later that day. It would take six weeks for him to make a full recovery, which is a lot quicker than what the team doctor had expected.

A week after the surgery, Sullivan got his stitches removed, and his recovery was still going smoothly. However, he started to use his right arm a lot more to compensate for his left, which was in a sling, and it soon began to experience similar nerve issues.

“I started to compensate and use my right arm more,” Sullivan said. “It worsened the symptoms of my [right] elbow to the point where I needed to get it looked at and it basically needed the same procedure [as the first surgery].”

On Jan. 12, 2021, exactly a month after his first surgery, Sullivan underwent his second elbow surgery.

The second surgery went just as smoothly as the first one did, as Sullivan saw the same surgeon as he did for his left elbow surgery. It would be another six weeks of recovery, and then he would be cleared to return to team activities — another good sign that would allow him the chance to compete for the Gophers again.

The return to Minneapolis

Sullivan returned to Dinkytown three to four weeks post-surgery, where he slowly built his way back through rehabilitation training for the remaining weeks of his recovery.

During his path toward recovery, Sullivan focused on rebuilding his strength and range of motion, in hopes of returning to competition for the Gophers for their last few meets of the regular season.

“When I first started getting back, I was really excited,” Sullivan said. “I worked hard, kept my head down. I worked on a lot of endurance and strength stuff. I was slowly building strength back up while trying to get back into shape.”

The Gophers were without senior star Shane Wiskus and juniors Mike Moran and David Pochinka, while head coach Mike Burns also decided to give some players rest against Michigan on March 14. There were a couple of open spots on the team’s pommel horse lineup, so Burns inserted Sullivan into the lineup, and he earned the opportunity to compete.

“I was happy to be there,” Sullivan said. “It just felt really good to be back out there. It was mainly pure joy because I was out there with my teammates and family and just going out there and competing.”

Sullivan scored 12.250 on the pommel horse against Michigan. His teammates could not be happier for him as this was his first time competing for the Gophers since Feb. 29, 2020.

“They were all thrilled, probably more than me,” Sullivan said. “They were just really proud and just happy I had the chance to do it again. I wanted to be able to compete with them, especially in our final year [as a program].”

Throughout the recovery process, Sullivan’s parents supported him from start to finish. They got another opportunity to see their son compete in-person before his final season comes to a close.

“They knew if I didn’t compete again that they were still going to be proud of me and that everything would be OK,” Sullivan said. “They were really supportive throughout the whole process. I’m just glad I was able to do it [compete] for them. They were just as happy as me to see me back out there.”

The following week against Illinois, Sullivan earned another opportunity to compete for the Gophers on the pommel horse, scoring 10.900.

What’s next for Sullivan after gymnastics

Sullivan is on track to graduate this December with an undergraduate degree in economics and is interested in taking his degree into the world of sales.

“I believe that’s kind of the route I want to go,” Sullivan said. “I’ll finish up next semester, look for jobs and see where it takes me.”