Medeiros Savage’s new mentality helps bring new culture for gymnastics

Assistant Coach Nilson Savage looks at the scoreboard on Jan. 13 in Hilton Coliseum during Iowa State gymnastics tri-meet on Jan. 13. Iowa State won the tri-meet against Towson and UW-Oskosh with a score of 194.275.

Austin Anderson

The meet ended and young girls rushed to the floor of Hilton Coliseum, anxious to hang out with their idols in an instructional clinic hosted by the Iowa State gymnastics team. The Cyclones had just improved their record to 3-0 for the first time in 10 years after winning a tri-meet against Towson and Wisconsin-Oshkosh in mid-January.

A big reason for the improved success was right there on the mat. Not NCAA championship qualifier Meaghan Sievers or the meet’s all-around champion, Kelsey Paz, but rather the strict disciplinarian who sent a new shockwave of focus throughout the gymnastics program this season.

New assistant coach Nilson Medeiros Savage, along with the rest of the girls on the mat, was dancing.

To the left and right he moved, not talking to anybody. It almost seemed like he was in his own world, not taking any notice of the young gymnasts out there with him.

Head coach Jay Ronayne said he brought Medeiros Savage on to be the strict, no-nonsense coach — a coaching style the team previously lacked. Everyone on the team will say this offseason was the hardest of their collegiate careers, and they have Medeiros Savage to thank for that.

Yet there he was, in the middle of Hilton Coliseum, dancing to the Cupid Shuffle like nobody was watching.

Ronayne made a decision last May. His team had recently finished in last place in the Big 12 championships and didn’t qualify for regionals or nationals.

He took all the things the Cyclones used to do and threw out almost everything. He wanted to start a new culture.

“We had roughly 50 percent of a team that simply didn’t want to put the effort in,” Ronayne said. “They did everything in their power to not let the ones that wanted to work hard, work hard. That team doesn’t exist anymore.”

Ronayne started new workouts. Workouts that fit as much training into the amount of time the NCAA allows college programs to practice. But Ronayne knew workouts alone weren’t going to be enough. He needed more. He needed intensity.

He got it.

Medeiros Savage arrived in Ames just days after leaving Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he coached Jessica Lopez, who finished seventh in all-around at the 2016 Olympic games.

Ronayne had never met Medeiros Savage but heard of his reputation from when he had served as an assistant coach at Oklahoma and Denver, which are currently ranked in the top seven in the NCAA women’s gymnastics rankings.

He was intense and passionate, stern and disciplinary. He was exactly what Ronayne was looking for to help change the culture of the program, a yin-and-yang type coexistence with the laid-back nature of Ronayne and fellow assistant coach Katie Minasola.

He has done exactly that.

When captain Briana Ledesma was asked about him, she paused before she let out a laugh.

“He’s crazy in the nicest way possible,” Ledesma said.

Junior Haylee Young called this offseason’s workouts, “a whole new ballgame,” compared to her first two seasons as a Cyclone.

“We were doing more numbers than we had ever done before,” Young said. “The conditioning was so hard. There were so many reps and it was really mentally draining too, but honestly, I’ve never felt this prepared for a season and I think everybody feels that way.”

Medeiros Savage’s impact goes beyond the intense conditioning or unique techniques and drills he uses that the team has never seen before.

He attacks his gymnasts mentally.

He walks up to them before their routines and tells them, straight to their face, they are going to fall and they are going to fail.

“He wants you to get mad and get angry,” Ledesma said. “He wants you to prove it and so he’s going to make you prove it. He’s like, ‘You’re going to be more afraid of me than falling off the bar.’”

Medeiros Savage admits he tries to get into the heads of the gymnasts to make them mentally stronger. He believes the physical ability of a gymnast is not nearly as important as the mental ability.

When Medeiros Savage arrived in Ames in September, he told the gymnasts they each were going to do five routines and he said the team looked at him like he was crazy.

But they did it.

“Hard is to go to war,” Medeiros Savage said. “Hard is to train to be in the military. The workouts are a joke [in comparison].”

In Brazil, Medeiros Savage started doing gymnastics when he was 11. He had a Chinese coach who hit him with a wooden paddle if he didn’t point his toes. He quit gymnastics when he was 13.

“It was too hard for me,” Medeiros Savage said. “I was a wimp. I wasn’t mentally tough enough to handle stretching and my Chinese coach.”

Instead of gymnastics, Medeiros Savage joined a trampoline club in college. Along with two other guys, they formed a group called the Gymnastics Locos.

It was some sort of cross between Cirque du Soleil and the Harlem Globetrotters where he was dressed up as a clown and performed for corporations in front of a few thousand people at a time.

“Jay [Ronayne] was a great collegiate athlete, Katie [Minasola] was an amazing USA gymnast and I was a clown,” Medeiros Savage said.

In college, he was tricked into becoming a coach. His girlfriend at the time was one of the best gymnasts in Brazil, and her coach was fed up with her going out with Medeiros Savage too often. The coach invited him to be a part of the team so he could keep an eye on the couple.

“Coach was a smart man,” Medeiros Savage said. “He would call me and say, ‘You know you can’t go out tonight, do you understand that?’ And I would tell him, ‘Coach you don’t have to worry about that.’ I couldn’t take my girlfriend out anymore because coach told me so.”

He didn’t know any English when he moved to the United States in 1989 to do a camp with Béla Károlyi, one of the most successful gymnastics coaches ever.

“I was just a foreigner with a dream,” he said.

He got an assistant coaching position at Oklahoma when the Sooners were ranked No. 45 in the country. In just six years, he helped them rise as high as No. 5.

After 10 years in Oklahoma he moved to the University of Denver where he had similar success helping to improve the program.

Now Medeiros Savage is at Iowa State, which was ranked No. 40 heading into this season.

“I think Iowa State has been an underdog for a few years,” Young said. “I think that’s a big advantage because if you’re always at the top and people are always expecting you to do good, there’s a lot of pressure. We don’t have pressure, we just want to go out and prove everyone wrong.”

Iowa State hasn’t had a winning record since 2007. The Cyclones also haven’t had a coach with a tendency for telling his gymnasts they will fail while also having personal handshakes with everyone on the team and carrying around chocolate in his pocket if they get low on energy.

“All together we can lead this team to greater things they haven’t done in the past,” Medeiros Savage said.

This team just might achieve its goals of making it to regionals and if that happens, at least some credit is due to a man with a mean Cupid Shuffle.