Olympic committee member sees an opportunity for U.S. men’s gymnasts amid team disappointment

The world watched with anticipation the competition of the Olympic men’s gymnastics team finals in London on July 30.

One of the more interested parties on how it turned out was a part-time Harborite with a close connection to the U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. men’s team is packed with potential and talent not seen since the 1984 Olympics, but it faltered in the team finals and finished fifth overall after leading the qualifying round.

For Mike Burns, the head coach of the University of Minnesota men’s gymnastics team who lives in Aberdeen part-time, the result was frustrating, but he sees chances for redemption from it.

Burns is one of five members of the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics selection committee who put the team together following the U.S. Trials in San Jose in June. So, he has a vested interest in the team’s performance.

One of the U.S. gymnasts, Danell Layva, gained some measure back for the team with a bronze medal in the all-around competition. Today, the team will have individual chances for medals in the apparatus events to conclude the Olympics.

“After the first day, the men were in first place and it was an opportunity for both (the men and the women) to win the gold,” said Burns, who is in Chicago for a recruitment trip. Burns is married to Dr. Stephanie Devaney-Burns, an Aberdeen anesthesiologist based at Grays Harbor Community Hospital.

“The expectations were so high, it was tough to accept the final, but that’s sports,” he said. “You have to go out there and get the job done. China was a real surprise. They had some troubles early on, but that’s what champions do — overcome those (troubles). Hopefully we can learn from that performance in the future. The competition is so tight. If one guy falls, you can lose three places. That’s good — you have to get the job done to win.”

This fall, Burns, 54, will dive into his eighth year at Minnesota and is currently recruiting new gymnasts to join the Gophers program all across the country. In the middle of all of his work, he finds time to return to Grays Harbor to spend with his wife.

Burns met Stephanie Devaney when Burns was an assistant coach at the University of Michigan in 2003. The pair married in 2008 and Devaney started working at Grays Harbor Community Hospital soon thereafter.

“It has been about three years in October doing it this way,” Burns said. “It certainly is a long-distance relationship. It is challenging and you do what you have to do to make it work. I try to get out there when I can. It is a beautiful area, I really like it there. From the people I’ve met there, I feel like a part of the community. But at the same time, I still have a lot to do here (at Minnesota). We are doing the best we can to make it work.”

Burns noted that he’ll retire on the Harbor, but his work has him moving around pretty well before that day comes.

Burns has been the head coach at Minnesota since 2005 and has coached national-level gymnasts for many years. One of his gymnasts at Minnesota, Guillermo Alvarez, qualified for the Pan-Am Games and narrowly missed selection for the 2008 Olympic team.

In gymnastics, the athlete’s coaches travel with them to national and international-level competitions, allowing coaches like Burns to experience the world while coaching their athletes.

“It has been a great ride,” said Burns, a native of Norwood, Mass., who is a graduate of Penn State in 1981. “When you coach at a high level, you want to get there like the athletes. When you talk to them, there’s that common theme — the desire to represent the United States. It is a real honor to do that, to walk out there with the U.S. on your chest. It is pretty cool.”

Without an athlete in the hunt for an Olympic team berth this year, Burns was nominated and named to the U.S. selection committee this year as one of two coaches on the committee.

“To be honest, I’d rather have a guy in the (Trials) than be on the committee,” he said.

Burns’ international coaching experience includes coaching two U.S. World Championship teams, head coach of the bronze-medal winning U.S. men’s team at the 2007 Pan-Am Games and assistant coach on the gold-medal winning men’s team at the 2005 Pan-Am Games.

Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926 or at rburns@thedailyworld.com