Illini gymnast Baker keeps bright outlook despite hardships

Illini gymnast Baker keeps bright outlook despite hardships

CHAMPAIGN — Taking a quick glance at Bobby Baker generates plenty of questions about the Illinois senior gymnast.

What's up with the bevy of tattoos on his right arm, which include a wolf, a compass and an anchor? Most relate to "lessons I've learned throughout life and college."

Why is his right ankle covered in obvious purple bruising? It's the result of a "dumb" accident during a pre-meet preparation session.

How is he able to smile so much, given such life events as his mother dying of breast cancer in 2001 and his body suffering a rash of gymnastics-related injuries?

There's not really an answer for that last question. Baker just knows he isn't generating any excuses ahead of the NCAA championships, which opens today at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago with Illinois vying for its first national title since 2012.

"I don't feel good," Baker said Tuesday, about 24 hours prior to departing for the 12-team national event. "But a lot of other people do."

The reason for that first thought traces back to Baker's right ankle.

On March 17, three-time reigning national champion Oklahoma visited Champaign's Huff Hall for a dual with Illinois.

Illini coach Justin Spring said it was business as usual until roughly 6 minutes remained in the teams' warmup session.

"I hear the gym fall silent," Spring said. "I'm like, 'What's happened here?'"

Baker landed awkwardly during a typical practice maneuver. A stretcher took him away from the site of Illinois' eventual 412.300-399.700 loss to the Sooners and whisked away via ambulance.

"I was pretty sure my season was done," Baker said. "It hurt a lot in the moment. I wasn't very positive about it, even though I was trying to keep a face for the team, at least until I got out of there."

It was a stunning blow, according to Spring. Baker had worked through an ulnar shortening procedure during the summer of 2017, removing approximately four millimeters from one of his wrist bones. That's not to mention various other maladies that have afflicted Baker during his Illinois tenure.

"Bob's career has not been very nice to him," Spring said. "Every time he should be right back on top, his body is like, 'Oh, no, you're going to need another surgery.'"

Luckily for Baker, that was not the case with his ankle. He immediately was able to rehabilitate, and got back to typical gymnastics activity the week of the Big Ten meet.

Of course, that didn't offer any sort of guarantees for Spring and his staff. Though the coaches knew Baker could prove especially useful in the all-around competition against Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State, Baker's health offered no certainty.

Baker was not in Illinois' original all-around lineup for the Big Ten meet. That quickly changed.

"I was like, 'Bob, I trust you more than anyone because you're so talented, you're so focused,'" Spring said. "'But you don't have the numbers.' He was like, 'I'm going to do a floor routine tomorrow and a pommel horse routine tomorrow and show you guys you made a mistake.'"

With teammates anxiously looking on at a practice just before the Big Ten meet, Baker put forth exactly that effort. Spring and his cohorts almost immediately placed Baker in their all-around lineup, resulting in a season-best 83.000 score and a third-place result at the Big Ten showcase.

"I want to do everything I can to help this team, and I want to do the all-around for myself because I can," Baker said. "I told them, 'I'm ready. Put me in.' I demanded it a little bit. Just them having the confidence to actually listen to me speaks volumes."

That situation offered Baker the last bit of motivation required in his final collegiate season.

The Lemont native will compete in nearby Chicago this weekend, offering family and friends the opportunity to see him in action. And he'll be trying to help the Illini avenge that defeat to Oklahoma, which Baker deemed the Illini's "worst meet of the year."

For Baker, this national event goes well beyond the skin and bone — past the tattoos and his injury-filled history. It's simply a matter of leaving all he has on the line.

"I'm fully willing to fight for every one of these guys," Baker said. "The whole mindset is just being a senior, I need to do the best I can in the time I have left and give everything I can to my team, because it's time."