The road to the 2012 London Olympics for U.S. gymnasts begins this week in St. Louis, and there's a sizeable Illini contingent among the hopefuls. Staff writer JEFF HUTH takes a look at the U.S. Visa Championships:
1. The basics
Since it's an Olympic year, the annual Visa Championships also will serve as the qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Trials. The top 15 male and top 15-17 female athletes in Visa Championships competition — which begins today and runs through Saturday in St. Louis — will advance to the Trials. As always, the Visa Championships will determine the current year's U.S. event champions as well as members of the U.S. senior and junior national teams. But the stakes are even higher this year, with a berth in the Trials on June 28-July 1 at San Jose, Calif., on the line. Performances in St. Louis matter a great deal from this perspective, too: 50 percent of the selection process for the U.S. Olympic teams will be based on what an athlete does this week at the Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University. "This is as much an Olympic Trials as the Olympic Trials," Illini coach and 2008 Olympic team member Justin Spring said. "So this is a very important event."
2. Illini triumvirate
Three members of the Illini's 2012 NCAA championship team are in the 43-athlete men's field: fifth-year senior Paul Ruggeri, freshman C.J. Maestas and junior Yoshi Mori. Ruggeri won the fourth NCAA event title of his career in April when he placed first in the vault. In the same meet, Maestas became the Illini's first-ever NCAA champion in still rings. Each is a member of the current U.S. Senior National Team (which was last updated in February) and represented the United States in the 2011 Pan American Games, where the Americans won a bronze team medal. In that meet, Ruggeri earned a gold medal in high bar and a silver in parallel bars. Maestas captured a bronze in still rings and barely missed medaling in the all-around by placing fourth. Mori earned All-America honors for the first time in his career this year by placing fifth in the pommel horse and sixth in the all-around at the NCAA Championships. "I think all three have a great shot (at advancing to the Trials)," Spring said. "Looking at their training, immediately after the NCAA Championships they got right to it."
3. Return to Sender
David Sender never competed for the Illini. In fact, the two-time NCAA vault champion was a UI rival at NCAA championships during his much-decorated career at Stanford. This school year, however, Sender was one of the Orange and Blue, serving as a volunteer assistant on Spring's staff while enrolled in the UI's veterinary program. "David's been a great resource for us," Spring said. "It's been great having him in the gym." Sender has an extensive USA Gymnastics resume as an 11-time U.S. Senior National Team member, highlighted by a trip to the 2006 World Championships. The Arlington Heights native is a three-time U.S. vault champion and was the all-around gold medalist in the 2008 Visa Championships. As recently as February, Sender medaled twice at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge. Spring and Sender are former U.S. Senior National Team teammates, although they never competed in the same international meets. However, when an injury forced Spring to withdraw from the 2006 World Championships, Sender was selected to take his place on the American team. "So we kind of high-fived as I went out and he went in," the Illini coach joked. A year later, Sender was the U.S. all-around champion. "I think he has a very good chance of making the Trials," Spring said. "When he won it all in '08 ... I think he's better than ever now."
4. Ankle bracing
Spring says the Illini contingent in the Visa Championships is injury-free, with one exception. Maestas has been dealing with a nagging ankle problem for the past six months. About eight weeks ago, tests revealed that the Corrales, N.M., native has several bone-spur floating bodies in his left ankle. Of course, you'd never know it from the way the all-arounder has performed this year, earning Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors en route to his stellar showing at the NCAA Championships. Maestas eventually will need surgery on the ankle, Spring says, but he'll continue to put it off for as long as his Olympics bid continues. Should Maestas reach London, it's likely the earliest he could schedule a surgery is mid-August. However, the timing shouldn't greatly impact his availability for the 2013 collegiate season. "The surgery we're looking at has a quick recovery," Spring said.
When the Visa Championships begin, one member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic men's team is scheduled to compete. Jonathan Horton, the Beijing Games silver medalist in high bar, is the lone holdover from the American bronze-medal team. "It's too difficult,' Spring said of a sustained competitive career in his sport. "It really takes a toll on your body." Spring is among the five other members of that U.S. Olympic team who decided to call it a career before the next Games. Spring retired from competition in April 2009 after being promoted from Illini assistant coach to associate head coach. A year later, Spring was named head coach at his alma mater. Spring suspects that new-look U.S. men's gymnastics teams every four years will become the norm. "The turnover rate is higher than ever," he said. "Typically, you're going to get one shot (at the Olympics) and one opportunity to make a story for yourself."