Virgil Watkins: Unparalleled Performance

As a rare engineering student athlete, MSE senior and varsity gymnast Virgil Watkins pursues perfection on the parallel bars and in the classroom.
Virgil Watkins: Unparalleled Performance

MSE senior Virgil Watkins executes a stutz on the parallel bars on the first day of the NCAA Championships as a sophomore in 2021 and (right) explains his team's research project in MSE 481 last fall.

Growing up in an athletic household in Ann Arbor, Virgil Watkins (whose dad, Ra-Mon Watkins, played football for U-M 1986-1991) said that through the years his parents put him and his four siblings in a variety of different Rec & Ed sports: basketball, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, and others. Over time he would inevitably quit them all, except one: gymnastics. 

“I think what kept me interested in the sport was its emphasis on perfection,” Watkins explains. “You can spend so much time trying to perfect a singular skill and once you feel like you've perfected it, there are even harder skills to try. To this day that is my favorite aspect of the sport, chasing that feeling of perfection.”

Striving for perfection applies to his studies as well. During his career as a U-M gymnast, Watkins (whose main apparatus is the parallel bars) has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors, 2021-2023, and was named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar in 2022. In the fall Watkins plans to attend graduate school to pursue research on electronic properties of materials. To that end, he applied to the Top 8 MSE programs in the country. He was accepted at all eight.

“Virgil is the brightest and most hardworking undergraduate student I have mentored,” Assistant Professor Yiyang Li states. “He has absolute mastery of all core materials science concepts, and once even solved a problem that stumped me for almost ten years.” 

As a child, Watkins said he always “tried his best” in school, but it was his godfather (an electrical engineer) who had the biggest influence on him becoming an engineer. 

“He taught me how to build a PC in the fourth grade and always showed me the cool things engineers were doing,” he says.

Watkin’s journey to MSE, though, wasn't a very direct one. When he arrived at U-M he thought he wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but after he took (and didn’t like) the aerospace section of Engr100, that plan was grounded. It wasn’t until he was planning his second semester schedule – still not knowing what major to pursue – that he elected to take MSE 220 since it was a requirement for several majors. 

“That class was my first exposure to MSE, and I enjoyed it so much I decided at the end of my second semester that I wanted to be a materials engineer,” Watkins says.

If you think it’s rare to hear of a student athlete majoring in materials science (or any engineering major, for that matter), that’s because it is. The rigors of an engineering curriculum are extraordinarily hard to balance with the demanding schedule of a Division I sport. Case in point: Watkins says that for gymnastics, team practices start in the fall and run for around three hours Monday through Friday, along with two other weekly morning practices. Then, during the gymnastics season, which runs most of the winter semester, they maintain a four-day practice week with competitions (which sometimes involve traveling) most weekends.

“To this day, I do not know how he has managed to excel in academics and research with the time commitments of a varsity athlete,” Li remarks.

Watkins attributes his ability to balance gymnastics and his challenging MSE courses came down to two key components: proper planning and discipline. He breaks down his weekly game plan during the gymnastics season: “Almost every Sunday after figuring out what assignments I need to complete and the exams I need to study for, I look at my calendar to find times to do them,” he explains. “After that, it's just sticking to the plan I set out at the beginning of the week and executing on it.”

If there’s one thing that Watkins feels he’s gained being a student athlete, it’s really valuing time. 

“During my years here, I've learned to value and maximize my time to the fullest,” he says. “By taking advantage of those 15-, 30-minute time periods in between different events in my schedule and using them as effectively as I can has allowed me to finish everything I need to. In addition, I value the time I get to spend with my friends and family more than ever now.”

With graduation just around the corner, time is about up on his U-M career, which he is thoughtful about: “With graduation and the end of my gymnastics career approaching it's definitely going to be my friends and the times we spent together that I will miss the most,” he says. “Times like the late-night study sessions we'd have that ended in giving up and laughing together or crowding into one hotel room with a bunch of my teammates after a competition to play games and crack jokes are going to be what I remember the most when I look back at my time here at Michigan.”

At the time of this publication, Watkins has not yet decided on which graduate school he will attend (It’s between Northwestern, MIT, UC Berkeley and Stanford), but rest assured that whatever he chooses to do, Watkins will stick the landing.

U-M Men's gymnastics team note: With the regular season now wrapped up, #3-ranked U-M (11-6 overall, 3-1 in the Big 10) sets its sights on winning its third straight Big Ten championship and 20th in program history. The Wolverines will be seeded No. 1, and will travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the postseason championships that will begin on Friday (March 31) with team and all-around competition, followed by individual event finals the following day on Saturday (April 1).

The competition on both nights commences at 8 p.m. from Ohio State's Covelli Center. The championship will be broadcast live on Big Ten Network.