IOWA CITY, Iowa – Don't bother trying to convince Travis Romagnoli he was dealt a bad hand this season.
Or a bad ankle, for that matter.
Sure, the Illinois gymnast has spent more time in the trainer's room than on the parallel bars.
Sure, the 1998 NCAA all-around champion has competed in all six events just once since Jan. 29 due to a stress fracture in his right ankle.
And sure, the two-time NCAA winner probably faces surgery on his right hand later this year to repair ligament damage.
But Romagnoli is entered in the NCAA Championships that start today. And that's something the seven-time All-American couldn't say one year ago.
"I felt like I had no control over anything last year," said the Illini senior, who missed the 1999 NCAA meet after breaking his hand less than three weeks beforehand. "Right now it's a totally opposite feeling. Just to be competing in six events again and feeling healthy is a feat in itself.
"I couldn't ask to be in a better situation than I am right now."
Few would blame Romagnoli if he did curse his injury-plagued fate. Since emerging as the NCAA's best male gymnast in the all-around and the vault as a sophomore, the Aurora, Ontario, native has endured one setback after another.
"It's been a very difficult year for him again this year," Illini coach Yoshi Hayasaki said.
First there was the hand injury in October, the same right hand he'd broken the previous season. This time the damage was a torn ligament and a bone chip in his middle finger.
"That was really frustrating," Romagnoli said. "My training had been going really well and I was in great shape for that time of year. I had to basically start with a new plan again and build my way up."
That plan obviously didn't include the pain in his right ankle that Romagnoli began feeling in early February. He didn't make the Feb. 5 trip to Ohio State, and when the pain persisted, an MRI was ordered in mid-February. That's when doctors discovered a stress fracture.
The news brought out the fighter in Romagnoli. After the initial shock, he remembers thinking, "I've never quit before and I'm not going to go down without a fight."
Said teammate Linh Hoang: "I thought he showed a lot of courage, when you're knocked down to get back up."
Working around the confines of the injury, Romagnoli continued his training as best he could.
"He did all the exercising, all the conditioning, the strength training, the flexibility," Hayasaki said.
Remarkably, Romagnoli did not miss another meet. Instead, he limited himself to events that wouldn't put too much strain on the ankle. Floor exercise and vault – an event Romagnoli won at the 1998 NCAA meet – were off limits.
As a further precaution, he would merely drop to the mat as gently as he could after his routines in such events as high bar, still rings and pommel horse. By not executing a dismount, Romagnoli was forfeiting .5 points off his score, but the alternative was risking further harm to the ankle.
The precautions paid off. Five days before the March 17-18 Big Ten Championships, Romagnoli was cleared by doctors of all restrictions in his training. Giving the all-around a shot for the first time in more than a month and a half, the 1998 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year opened eyes at the league meet by placing fourth on high bar and fifth on parallel bars en route to eighth place in the all-around.
"He did well under the circumstances," Hayasaki said. "He probably went in there 65 percent ready. He's a tough competitor."
The meet reinforced Romagnoli's importance to his team, physically and psychologically. Illinois entered Big Tens ranked behind five other league teams in the national poll. The Illini exited third, their highest finish in the conference since 1992.
"He's our leader," Hoang said. "With Travis out of the lineup, a big piece was missing."
Unlike last year, Romagnoli won't be missing when the NCAA's best gymnasts gather today at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And, in view of all that's happened this season, that's all the Illini senior can ask.
"There is definitely a sense of relief," said Romagnoli. "I don't like looking in the past and saying 'What if this didn't happen? What if that didn't happen? Where would I be?' because injury is part of the game and to overcome it is something that has to be done sometimes.
"I'm just glad I kept positive through the hard times."
What are his NCAA prospects? That's anybody's guess. But with 11 more days to train and to heal between Big Tens and the national meet, Romagnoli says he's feeling better than he has since his ankle started bothering him.
"Right now, honestly, I feel totally ready to go," he said. "I'm going out to do what I've been doing in the gym. ... If I do that, whatever happens, happens.
"But I'll be in control of what I'm doing and that's all I'm worried about right now."
Hoang, for one, isn't about to sell Romagnoli short on what he can accomplish these next three days. Not after seeing the way his tough-minded teammate battled back to get to this point.
"I would say he's (physically) about 85 to 90 percent right now," Hoang said. "I think mentally he's about 150 percent. That's why he can accomplish anything even if he's 80 percent.
"That's his edge, the mental game."
Vaulting into the NCAAs
What: The 58th NCAA men's gymnastics championships.
When: Today through Saturday.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Schedule: Today – Team and all-around qualifying; Friday – Team and all-around finals; Saturday – Individual event finals.
Format: The NCAA has done away with regional qualifying meets this year, instead selecting a field of 12 teams for a national qualifying meet. The top three teams in each of two six-team qualifying sessions will advance to Friday's finals. Individually, the top three in all-around and in individual events from each session also move on. On Friday, the top eight gymnasts in each individual event advance to Saturday's individual finals.
Illini outlook: Eighth-ranked Illinois is coming off its highest score of the season – a 228.075 at the Big Ten meet. The performance boosted the Illini to third place, its highest finish in the league in eight years. Illinois' strengths are the parallel bars (ranked third) and still rings (fourth). Individually, Travis Romagnoli enters with the nation's highest ranking in the high bar (9.767). Two of the three scores used to figure his average came from the first two meets of the season, before Romagnoli suffered an ankle injury. However, his average also includes his most recent outing, a 9.75 at the Big Ten meet, so the ranking shouldn't be discounted. The UI's all-around entrants – Leo Oka and Romagnoli – are ranked 13th and 18th. If Oka can improve on his high bar routine and Romagnoli in the floor exercise, each could reach Friday's finals.
Did you know? Illinois' Yoshi Hayasaki is one of two coaches in the history of the NCAA gymanstics meet to win titles as a competitor (1970 and '71 all-around and 1970 high bar at Washington) and as a coach (1989 at Illinois).