Gophers gymnast Ellis Mannon was one of 2,437 students admitted to Stanford University last spring.
In high school, Mannon reached out to Stanford and eight other Division I schools with men’s gymnastics programs. The Cardinal, who had won the 2009 national championship and was on the verge of another, responded with interest.
Sounds like a perfect match, right?
Mannon didn’t think so — he chose Minnesota, another top Division I program instead.
“I felt more wanted here,” Mannon said.
Despite struggling with inconsistency, Mannon has had a productive freshman season with the Gophers and established himself as a force in the lineup.
He will wrap up his season at the NCAA championships April 19-21 in Norman, Okla. The fifth-ranked Gophers will count on Mannon to perform well on the pommel horse — his specialty — to meet their goal of making the team final.
If he had chosen differently almost a year ago, he could be competing with defending champion Stanford, which is ranked third.
“We’ve had some recruiting battles with Stanford in the past, and when guys get admitted to Stanford, it’s a hard sell to get them away from there,” Gophers head coach Mike Burns said. “That was a big feather in our cap. … I’m always happy when we can beat Stanford in a recruiting battle.”
As it is, Mannon’s Gophers will not meet Stanford unless both advance to the team final.
“I didn’t really get to know them, so I don’t think it will be awkward or anything,” Mannon said.
Mannon applied to nine of the 17 Division I colleges in the U.S. with men’s gymnastics programs. All nine accepted him, but Minnesota and Stanford quickly became his top two choices.
He likely would have gotten into either school based solely on academic merits. He had a 3.7 GPA in high school and scored a 2220 on his SAT.
Pursuing a spot on a Division I gymnastics team required a little more attention.
In gymnastics terms, Mannon began late at the age of 9. By the end of his high school career in Indianapolis, however, his Division I prospects seemed viable, his father James Mannon said.
The only problem was, few collegiate coaches knew of Ellis Mannon.
After the early November signing period passed, Ellis Mannon and his father decided to take recruiting into their own hands before the second signing period in April.
“I really had no notion about how to go about contacting colleges, but you just Google it,” James Mannon said.
Through the power of search engines, James Mannon decided to make DVDs of his son’s gymnastics and sent them to the nine schools he applied to.
In the age of YouTube, the old-world charm of DVDs stood out to Burns.
“Ellis really contacted us, which is interesting,” Burns said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this kid’s pretty good. He’s kind of been under the radar screen. … We’ve got to take a look at this kid.’”
Ellis Mannon’s gymnastics also intrigued Stanford head coach Thom Glielmi.
“He’s a very solid pommel horse guy, and he looked like a viable candidate to be admitted,” Glielmi said. “That’s the big thing — if he can add to a team and he can get in [to Stanford], then I’m going after him.”
With two of the nation’s top teams pursuing him, Mannon faced a tough decision.
He took an unofficial visit to Stanford in 2009 and an official recruiting trip to Minnesota last February.
“I think if he had a good impression in February — during a year when they were actually having a real winter [in Minnesota] — I figured he was probably pretty good,” James Mannon said.
Ellis Mannon’s time with the team, especially that year’s freshman class, helped him realize that he would fit in at Minnesota.
“I felt like I could contribute … and I felt like I connected with the team,” Ellis Mannon said.
On the athletics side, Mannon favored Minnesota, but it was the school’s academics that sealed the deal.
Mannon plans to major in chemical engineering. Minnesota’s chemical engineering program is ranked fourth in the nation according to U.S. News Education, one below Stanford’s.
“It wasn’t like I was choosing the worse academic school,” Mannon said.
He is also considering minoring in music performance. He has played the violin since he was 6 years old, and he performed in youth symphonies while growing up in Indiana.
For his parents, it was the scholarships, both athletic and academic, that made the difference.
“[Ellis] was a national merit scholarship winner, and Stanford doesn’t really reward that the way that Minnesota does,” James Mannon said.
Ellis Mannon receives 80 percent of his tuition from academic scholarships and the last 20 percent from athletic scholarships — a full ride.
“His academic award was really the thing that made it possible for him to do gymnastics,” James Mannon said, “because the athletics awards oftentimes aren’t that big in many of the smaller sports.”
While Mannon has excelled in the classroom and in his sport, he isn’t perfect.
“One word: athleticism. He lacks a lot of it,” said Steve Jaciuk, his friend and teammate. “When it comes to that pommel horse, he’s got all the attributes there. But outside of gymnastics, he’s not the most athletic person in the world.”
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