For the Zach Gentrys of this world, the link between high school athlete and college destination is relatively straightforward.
A blue-chip recruit like Gentry, the former Eldorado High quarterback, need only pick from among a smorgasboard of drooling suitors.
At the other end of the spectrum are gifted gymnasts – in particular, kids like Corrales’ Ryan Dunning and Rio Rancho’s Nathan Graham.
For this duo, the obstacles are not insignificant.
For starters, New Mexico does not offer high school gymnastics.
Secondly, there are fewer than 20 Division I men’s gymnastics programs in the entire country from which to choose.
Third, those programs are not, generally speaking, likely to send recruiters out on the road to scour the nation for promising prospects like Graham and Dunning.
If you want to crack Division I gymnastics, which these two 18-year-olds plan to do, you’ve got to be the initiator.
“I had to publicize myself to them,” Dunning said of the University of Michigan, where he is planning to walk on with the Wolverines this coming season.
YouTube was a popular way for this rings specialist, who attended The ASK Academy, a charter school in Rio Rancho, to get the attention of Michigan.
And so Michigan will give him a shot to make the squad next season. A majority of the top men’s D-1 gymnastics programs can be found in the middle of the country, many of them in the Big 10.
Dunning is traveling about 1,800 miles to try his luck, although Michigan’s engineering program was also a pull for him.
“It’s definitely gonna be a challenge,” said Dunning. “But I look at where I’ve come from, and I think my skill level is at a point where I can earn a spot in the lineup.”
The Wolverines figure to be young next season, Dunning added, increasing his chances of competing right away. He said he overcame a shoulder injury as a junior, something that limited his visibility among colleges.
“I didn’t get a lot of publicity,” said Dunning, who took up gymnastics as a way to follow in the footsteps of an older sibling and decided right from the start that he was hooked. “This (going to Michigan) will be a good chance for me to get my name in there and hopefully contribute. I definitely am ready to put in the work and make it happen.”
Graham, 18, graduated from Cleveland High last spring. Both Graham and Dunning are students at Eagle Ridge Gymnastics in Rio Rancho, the same school that produced Nolan Novak (Valley High/Michigan) several years ago.
Graham is Penn State-bound; the Nittany Lions’ head coach, Randy Jepson, also once coached Eagle Ridge coach Brandy Wood, so Graham already had a built-in “in.”
Graham is a self-described military kid who has lived in Kansas, Oklahoma (where he first got his start in the sport), Illinois, Japan and Alaska before the family transplanted to New Mexico four years ago.
As they looked at high schools, the thought was, find a small one. Cleveland was decidedly not small.
“It really backfired,” Graham said, laughing.
But the high school was not the school that most interested them – it was shopping for a gymnastics school in the metro area. They settled on Eagle Ridge.
Although Graham said he once gave up gymnastics – burned out, he said, around the age of 10 – by the time the family arrived in Alaska he was refreshed and ready to give gymnastics another go. He, like Dunning, is prepared to go out on a limb a couple of thousand miles from home. And like Dunning, Graham was the one who did the leg work to connect.
“I found them,” he said of Penn State. “We sent out videos, emails, to get them to talk to us.”
Graham will have to earn his way on to the team to eventually become a scholarship student-athlete, same as Dunning.
“I’m not completely relying on talent,” Graham said. “I’m also a very hard worker. They’ve been talking to me and telling me that I’m basically on the team, but anything can happen really.”
And if he and Dunning should someday become Big 10 rivals?
“That’ll be cool,” Graham said.