Paul Juda and the Journey to Finding Unique Solutions
Updated: Jul 23
When Paul Juda committed to the University of Michigan, the gymnastics team was still under the leadership of legendary and longtime head coach, Kurt Golder. During Juda’s freshman year, Golder relayed a valuable piece of information that has carried Juda through his career; he said, “A unique situation deserves and requires a unique solution.” And if there’s one word to describe Juda’s gymnastics career, it’s unique.
When asked to describe the last two years of his career, Juda spoke of the ups and down, not with disdain, but rather with an appreciation of the lessons his career has taught him. He believes that the ups and downs of gymnastics are a perfect metaphor for life, and holds fast to the belief that
“you aren’t always going to be winning, but you also aren’t always going to be losing.”
Juda entered college in 2019 as one of the most anticipated NCAA gymnasts since the likes of Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer. He quickly made his mark, earning a 15.000 on the high bar and picking up Big Ten and All-American honors. The COVID-19 pandemic brought his first season to an early close but he came back even stronger for the 2021 season. Throughout his sophomore season, he tallied 18 individual event wins and capped the NCAA season with two All-American honors; one in the all-around, and the other on pommel horse.
Photo provided by the Universitiy of Michigan Athletic department.
Securing an Additional Olympic Spot
But after the 2021 NCAA championships, his motivation and momentum to keep going ebbed. The NCAA season has a grueling schedule, and he had to decide whether or not he was going to use the NCAA offseason to rest or to continue to pursue his dream of competing at the Olympic Games. Several weeks after the conclusion of the NCAA Championships, senior elite national team members were invited to a selection camp where they could opt to compete for a spot at the 2021 Pan American Championships.
When asked about his experience at camp, he said that particular camp was where he matured the most. He had to wrestle with the thought, “What if I don’t make the Olympic Team?” His conclusion: whatever the selection, he would be ok. After talks with those closest to him, he realized that he was loved whether he hung up his grips or continued pushing forward, and that he didn't need to define himself by one goal or one sport.
With that renewed assurance and confidence, push forward he did. Juda earned the opportunity to compete at the Senior Pan-American Championships in June of 2021, where the United States desperately needed a top-two finish in the all-around to secure an additional spot for the Olympics later that year. On June 4, 2021, Juda claimed the final +1 quota spot available to the U.S. men’s team by placing second in the all-around.
There was much confusion in the media about whether or not Juda had actually earned a spot for himself (nominative) or if the spot was a quota spot for the United States. As it turns out, the latter was true. At Olympic Trials, he place 8th in the all-around, and missed a spot on the team or as an alternate. While disappointment was the natural reaction to falling short of a long-term goal, Juda, ever the optimist, holds his head high for helping Team USA get an extra Olympic spot; and, for helping Alec Yoder’s Olympic dreams come true. It’s in these moments that he fully represents what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine. In the words of beloved Michigan football coach, Bo Schembechler: “No man is more important than the Team. No coach is more important than the team. The Team, The Team, The Team.”
Refocusing on NCAA
Not making the team meant that Juda escaped weeks of isolation in Japan as the pandemic continued to rage. He was also able to take it easy before the upcoming NCAA season. The men’s elite program had been pushing for upgraded difficulty but he didn’t feel the timing was right to put in upgrades. His mentor, Kurt Golder, had told him “You just gotta do the stuff you know you can hit and build your confidence.” So Juda sought sustainability instead of upgrades.
That choice meant he used slightly less difficult routines to start the season. At the Maize and Blue intrasquad in December 2021, he hit six for six, foreshadowing what was to come. Juda’s junior season was nothing short of eventful. When trying to compete at the 2022 Winter Cup, the Michigan gymnasts' flights were canceled due to weather. The next morning, he woke up at 2 A.M. to catch a different flight, only to have that one canceled too. He did finally make it to Texas for the final day of competition and reiterated his gratefulness to USA Gymnastics for allowing him to compete and retain his spot on the U.S. National Team.
From there he was selected to represent the U.S. at the Cairo World Cup, where he brought home silver medals on both floor and high bar. But for Juda, the highlight of the season came at NCAA Championships. It was down to the last rotation and he needed the vault of his life to clinch the title. As he stood at the end of the vault runway, he could hear and feel the energy generated by his team. They needed a big vault from him, and he delivered.
He had never stuck that vault in competition, but this day was different. With legs glued together pre-flight and with a stuck landing, he secured both the all-around and vault titles. He said that moment made all the sacrifices worth it.
A Nine-Month Injury Arc
That high wouldn’t last for long, as he got back in the gym putting in upgrades for the upcoming elite season. He was working a back 2.5 through to double front on floor and during warm-up for the 2022 U.S. Classic, he injured his knee. That moment would begin a nine-month injury arc that would test Juda’s determination and perseverance. In January 2023, he was training a Kolman on high bar and missed. When he landed, one leg was on the mat, and the other one wasn’t leading to yet another injury. That particular injury took him out of contention for most of the NCAA season, but he was slated to make a comeback on three events at the NCAA National Championships.
Parallel bars was not one of the three events he was going to compete, but he wanted to stay warm before high bar (parallel bars comes before high bar in the competition sequence). So, during the one-touch, he warmed up a Healy but missed his hand, meaning his head hit the bar. Concussion protocol was followed, and even though the medical team cleared him, he and his coaches decided to have him sit out of the meet so that he could take his redshirt year.
Juda says that all this had a silver lining: it gave him a chance to better his pommel horse and to increase his still rings strength. It’s a story all too familiar to another Wolverine great, Sam Mikulak. Following an ankle injury in 2011, Mikulak worked pommel horse and rings strength which he credits for helping him make the 2012 Olympic Team. Perhaps the extra time and attention to those apparatuses will lead Juda to his first Olympic Games, just over a year away.
The Journey to the Paris Olympic Games
When he steps foot on the competition floor at the 2023 U.S. Classic, Juda will be competing on the national stage for the first time in nearly a year. He is already pre-qualified to the national championships, so he can use this meet as a true warm-up ahead of the run towards making the 2023 World Championships team. Regardless of how this elite season unfolds, he will have at least one more season as Captain with the Wolverines while completing a graduate certificate in real estate. As our interview concluded, he reiterated the joy in the unpredictableness of the journey, saying, ‘It’s not the same old song and dance.”
Though undecided on what he is going to compete at the U.S. Classic, he is training the all-around. Immediately following our interview, he left to go to the gym for a one-on-six—that is, one routine on each of the six events. The truly incredible thing about Juda’s career is his determination to make the best of each situation. His eagerness to learn from his mistakes and misfortune in gymnastics translates far beyond what he presents on the competition floor – it gives him a positive outlook on both the sport and on life.
Juda will return to elite competition on Sunday, August 6th where he will compete in the first session. Information about tickets and streaming can be found here.
Article by: Kensley Behel