Feb. 1, 2016
Yaroslav Pochinka's freshman season as a member of the men's gymnastics team did not go as planned. How can it, though, when about a month before the first meet, he fractured three metacarpals in his left hand?
In a sport where hands are essential, or "money," as head coach Mike Burns says, Pochinka suddenly was seeing a hand specialist and facing surgery. Few people felt there was a realistic chance he'd return to gymnastics at any point during the season.
"I sent a copy of the X-ray to my wife, who is an anesthesiologist, and she said, `Oh, he's out for the season,'" Burns said. "I responded, `Eh, I don't know. Don't count him out.' But she took another look and said, `No. No, he's out for the season.' I showed it to the hand specialist, and he too said he's out for the season."
On December 3, 2014, Pochinka underwent surgery on his hand. A plate and screws were inserted to repair the injured bones. Weeks of grueling rehabilitation would soon follow.
"My broken hand is the most severe injury that I've ever had," Pochinka said. "Everything else has been a sprain or a bruise or a pulled muscle. This was broken bones, multiple shattered pieces."
The thing that made Burns question the season-ending diagnosis is how Pochinka had proven to be very detail-oriented and quick to handle responsibilities during the recruiting process. It is something that would prove to be beneficial during his rehab.
"One of the things I really like about Yaro is that he's one of the hardest workers we have on the team," Burns said. "He's very punctual, and very diligent in taking care of the tasks he is asked to do, whether it's in the gym with his training or if it's with his academics."
Pochinka is majoring in neuroscience with a minor in psychology, and the reason he claims to be able to handle responsibilities quickly, as Burns noted, is that he prides himself on prioritizing.
"I went into the surgery knowing that it was going to be painful, and that I would need to push myself to make it through the rehab process," Pochinka said. "For weeks, I couldn't even lower my arm because it hurt so much, so I was spending most of my time riding a stationary bike and doing leg conditioning exercises."
"Normally, even when my wrists are really sore from gymnastics, I'm still able to use my hands," Pochinka said. "So it was a really odd feeling not to be able to move my hand a couple degrees, no matter how hard I tried. It was really frustrating."
Slowly, things started to get better. Pochinka began going into rehab twice a week and working on just trying to open and close his hand, or rotate it around.
"It was a great feeling seeing my hand move just a little bit more each time. At one point, I was able to move it to a 45-degree angle, and that was a great improvement," Pochinka said. "After that, it was almost exponentially better each week. I went from 45-degrees to a closed fist in about two weeks."
Eventually, he was able to start doing push-ups against a wall while standing, then, he was doing push-ups on the ground, then handstands. After that, it was just a matter of time. He pushed his hand to the point where it hurt but not too much. He was able to grip things again and to lift weights.
"Once I saw the progress that was being made, things started to get easier," Pochinka said. "I went from push-ups to doing a handstand in one day, then I slowly started doing tumbling, back flips, front flips, and I tried a front handspring and it didn't hurt too badly."
According to Burns, Pochinka's two best events are vault and rings. Both would be challenging with the plate and screws in his hand.
"That's where his diligence came into play, because he took the same approach with his rehab as he did with the tasks I gave him during recruiting," Burns said. "It was just another task that needed to be done, and he paid a lot of attention to it and did everything that was asked of him."
Pochinka, who does a front handspring double front tuck for his competition vault, remarkably made his collegiate debut with a team-best 15.150 at Stanford on Feb. 28, about three months after the injury. He competed in the final three regular season meets, finishing second at the Big Ten Championships and ninth at the NCAA Championships.
This season, he's expected to compete in vault, still rings and floor. He's been working on doing the same vault, but in a pike position, which Burns said is something only a few gymnasts in the world are able to do.
"He definitely has the capability," Burns said. "It's whatever happens that particular day, but looking at his competitive comfort zone and basing it on last year's results, I think he's got a real strong possibility of becoming a Big Ten or even a national champion."
SIDEBAR: STUDYING THE BRAIN
As talented as Yaroslav Pochinka is as a gymnast, he might be even more impressive in the classroom. The sophomore is majoring in neuroscience with a minor in psychology, and he received the team's academic excellence award as a freshman.
"My dream job would be as a practicing physician, who is also a professor at a medical school, and doing some research on the side," Pochinka said. "I definitely want to pursue a career in medicine, in some form or another, whether it's neurology, neuroscience, or as a general physician."
In his spare time, Pochinka said he's been working with InSciEd Out, an integrated science education outreach program, where he gets to help elementary and middle school-aged children work on science. By doing so, he discovered he enjoys teaching, which made him interested in a professorship.
His college decision came down to Minnesota, Stanford and Nebraska, but Minnesota wound up being his choice for all the obvious reasons, but also in part because his recruiting trip was so well-organized.
"I also liked the team aspect better at Minnesota," Pochinka said. "It just seemed more like a strong community. I felt right at home at Minnesota, and eventually it just became the only place I wanted to be."
"Yaro is a very dedicated student and he is the prototypical student-athlete," head coach Mike Burns said. "He's into the School of Biological Sciences, which is not an easy college to get in to. Whatever he is going to do in life, I anticipate great things out of him just based on his dedication and diligence to what he's asked to do."
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