King of the Gym
The calendar flipped to July, and Kyle King still hadn’t planned to participate in collegiate gymnastics.
By the end of August, immediately following the P&G Championships in Pittsburgh in 2014, King found himself on the Nebraska campus, with nothing but a couple of warmups and his backpack.
“I didn’t even have a pencil,” he said, laughing.
Painfully shy and a man of few words, King found himself alone, forced to change his quiet ways.
“I had to figure out something,” said King, a native of Mesquite, Texas. “I couldn’t be shy anymore. Ask questions. Do what you have to do.”
Four years after his whirlwind recruiting process landed him in Lincoln, King is outgoing, vocal, and a big reason Nebraska men’s gymnastics has begun returning to its rightful spot among the nation’s elite.
The postseason begins Friday, when No. 6 Nebraska participates in the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it continues April 20-21, when the Huskers travel to Chicago for the NCAA Championships.
Nebraska last season made the NCAA Finals for the first time since 1999. But they finished sixth, well short of the program's first national title since 1994.
“We have an actual shot at winning, which we haven’t had in so long,” King said. “People are starting to look at us. I feel like we’ve proven ourselves, which we haven’t done in many, many years.”
Nebraska, 11-3 in the regular season, is 6-1 in Big Ten competition but hasn’t yet faced Michigan or Illinois. Team finals are Friday, and individual finals are Saturday.
“I’ve literally watched every year, us get better and better,” King said. “We’ve been getting better recruits, more people want to come here. Everything’s been happening so fast.”
King, a “really fast, springy kid,” according to Nebraska coach Chuck Chmelka, holds the Nebraska record high score on floor exercise, where he scored a 15.85 against Air Force his sophomore season. He earned All-American status on floor last season, and his highest score this year, 14.75, came in Nebraska’s last meet, March 24, against Iowa and Minnesota.
But King is also a key scorer on pommel horse, one of his most improved events, and for the first time this season, he made Nebraska's high bar lineup. He’s always excelled on vault. The only event King isn’t participating in this season is still rings, because the event would take a toll on his shoulder.
“It’s too bad, because I think he would have a great chance in the Big Ten all-around and the NCAA all-around,” Chmelka said. “But we’ve got to give a little to take.”
Because of his accomplishments, King is a finalist for the Nissen-Emery Award, best described as the Heisman Trophy of men’s gymnastics, except for seniors only. Assistant coach Jim Hartung became the first of three Nebraska gymnasts to win the Nissen-Emery, and King is the first Husker finalist since Ethan Lottman in 2016.
“Kyle’s just a really unique kid,” Chmelka said. “He’s smart. He listens well. He works really hard. He has a real high pain threshold. Nothing really bothers him too much. It’s really rare. When he says he’s hurting, he’s really hurting.
“He’s just so sincere, and it’s been a dream to coach him. We’re lucky to get him, and it’s going to be sad when he leaves.”
When Chmelka said he’s lucky to get King, he’s not exaggerating by much.
“Somebody just sent us a video of him,” Chmelka said. “He was already a senior. Nobody really knew of him.”
King had moved club gyms, and his new coach at Ridgewood Gymnastics in Dallas, Jeremy Kramb, helped King dramatically. Although King had been doing big routines, he admittedly was sloppy.
“I went there, and Jeremy just took my gymnastics to a whole new level,” King said. “He helped me clean up my gymnastics; my all-around score went up by eight points. That was my first time making regional team and my first time making the P&G Championships.”
One night after practice, King received a call from Nebraska assistant coach John Robinson, who wanted to know if King had signed anywhere. Not only had King not signed, he’d not even visited anywhere, except Oklahoma.
“I went home that night,” King said, “and said, ‘Dad, you want to go to Nebraska?’ ”
The late-summer visit went well.
“It was just a little bit different to me. I liked everything they had to offer,” King said. “It really seemed like a family here. I felt more welcome.”
King signed, and then tied for the floor title at the P&G Championships. Soon after, Illinois contacted him. Then Ohio State. Then Air Force.
“We just kind of got a little lucky,” Chmelka said. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, sometimes.”
King arrived in Lincoln as a good gymnast, but “real raw,” Chmelka said. He continued to improve, just as coaches expected, and even now, they feel King hasn’t reached his potential.
“I can’t say enough good about him,” Chmelka said, noting younger Nebraska gymnasts follow and emulate him.
“I wish I had 10 more of him.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.