By Pat Borzi
Learning can be a two-way street in the chalk-caked gymnastics room on the third floor of Cooke Hall. That’s especially true when senior Ellis Mannon is in the room. The defending NCAA pommel horse champion is a dual degree candidate in chemical engineering and economics.
Last fall, Mannon attended a lecture on inflation by former University of Minnesota professor Chris Sims, now at Princeton University, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in economics with Thomas J. Sargent of New York University. The next day, Mannon discussed the lecture with assistant gymnastics coach Russ Fystrom (B.S. ’73, M.Ed. ’87). As usual, head coach Mike Burns treasured Mannon’s mastery of a complicated topic.
“I’m sort of listening in on this conversation and I’m like, ‘holy smokes, Ellis,’” Burns says. “He’s warming up to do pommel horse and he’s talking economic theory. I’m like, he’s killing me here. I learn things when I talk to Ellis.”
In gymnastics, as well as in his demanding coursework, Mannon relies on an analytical mind and creative bent. His long arms and upper body strength allow him to perform skills he created with Fystrom’s help, such as his signature: spinning on the horse with his legs split—the flair position—while shifting his hands on and off the grips. It helped Mannon win the first NCAA title by a U gymnast since Clay Strother (B.S. ’04) took pommel horse and floor exercise in 2002. “He does a couple of things that nobody else in the world can do,” says Fystrom, the former Gopher and 1973 Big Ten pommel horse champion.
“I’m an engineer, and the job of an engineer is to solve problems a lot of the times,” Mannon says. “Figure out the root of the problem, analyze it, and fix it. Same with gymnastics. Maybe some people don’t really go about that approach and they’re still successful, but that’s the approach that works for me.”
That’s an understatement. Matthew Neurock, one of Mannon’s chemical engineering professors who was also a gymnast as an undergraduate at Michigan State, is amazed at his elite performances in and out of the classroom.
“The third and fourth years of school are very involved. He has design and lab classes and many projects. You can’t take a whole weekend off. He’s doing this with two majors, which is incredibly difficult, and he’s competing in every event. I have the utmost respect for him,” Neurock says.
Heading into his final season, Mannon put aside the violin, one of his passions, to pursue several goals: defend his NCAA and Big Ten pommel horse titles; make All-American in the all-around with a top-eight finish at the NCAA Championships (he was 11th last season); and qualify for U.S. nationals this summer in Indianapolis, his hometown.
“There’s so much more to him than athletic performance,” Burns says. “He’s a great student, a great violin player, a great orator. He can have a really logical and educated debate on pretty much anything. He’s the kind of guy who is going to be successful in whatever he does.”