Whistling Dixon

Whistling Dixon

   CHAMPAIGN  Phaedra Dixon''s high school, Chicago''s Whitney Young, is a wonderful place to study, but it does not have a gymnastics team.

   None of her classmates were gymnasts. None of her school friends were gymnasts. And you''ll not find another University of Illinois gymnast who attended a Chicago Public League school.

   The suburbs? Sure. The Illini are represented there. Oak Brook, Rolling Meadows, Glen Ellyn, Park Ridge.

   But Whitney Young is not a hotbed of gymnastics talent. Dixon, a UI sophomore, has done her part to break the mold.

   "Most of the people in the suburban schools are encompassed by gymnastics," said Dixon, who will lead Illinois into Saturday''s Big Ten championships at East Lansing, Mich. "They have these after-school activities that their parents put them in because it''s close. In the city, you don''t have that. You have the YMCA, and that''s how a lot of guys get into basketball. Sometimes you can get into track."

   So how does someone get into gymnastics?

   By having parents who placed their daughter in a tumbling program at the local YMCA as soon as she could walk. By enrolling in youth gymnastics programs at Chicago State and Illinois-Chicago. By driving an hour  one way, each day  to reach a five-hour practice session.

   Easy to see why Dixon gets a little riled up when folks don''t understand what she''s gone through to get where she is.

   "They do not understand. And that irritates me," said Dixon, a wide grin belying her sentiments. "They don''t understand that I''m in the gym five hours a day. They don''t understand that my everyday schedule (was to) wake up, go to school, go to practice, come home and do homework, go to sleep for the next day. Every day."

   UI coach Lynn Brueckman understands. Because, in many instances, that''s the gymnastics way. Much like swimming and hockey, talented gymnasts often seek out clubs or similar organizations to advance their careers. And, like Dixon, if you attended a school that doesn''t offer a program, you had no choice.

   "A lot of times, at the age of 10 or 11, these kids are making a choice," Brueckman said. " ''Do I want to go the Olympic route and train for the Olympics, or do I want to train at the Junior Olympic level and possibly get a college scholarship?'' Very rarely do you get to do both."

   Dixon chose the latter. But she didn''t have much of a choice in other facets.

   She loved the early tumbling classes, enough to keep her interest in gymnastics alive. By the time she was in junior high, Dixon was a part of the Illinois Gymnastics Institute, an elite club-level team with which Dixon earned a state championship in the all-around in 1997. She eventually landed a spot on the USGF National Team.

   All of that because of a commitment to her sport  and some desire to get past a few obstacles.

   "She''s a pretty determined individual," Brueckman said. "When she puts her mind to something, she''s pretty gung-ho about it."

   So it''s easy to understand how Dixon graduated from Whitney Young in three years. (She tested into a program that allowed her to take freshman courses as a seventh-grader.) And no imagination is necessary to comprehend how she is double-majoring in chemistry and broadcast journalism. (Yes, an interesting coupling. She knows.)

   But her determination is not easily elicited. She has help. Dixon loves inspirational quotes, the kind you find on calendars and such. Her favorite: "The greatest pleasure in life is doing what others say you cannot do."

   Some would say Dixon isn''t supposed have the success she is enjoying at the UI. She has recorded eight all-time top scores, and she owns the season''s best scores in the vault (9.825), bars (9.900, same as teammate Gina Wiechmann) and all-around (39.350).

   But the sport has offered Dixon a chance to be good, to be understood and to be a part of something that many within Chicago''s boundaries never will get to experience.

   "I don''t know where I''d be without the sport," she said. "I think it teaches a lot of discipline to be able to cope with doing all of that."

Big Ten gymnastics championships

MEN

Where: Iowa City, Iowa

Outlook: Seeking their first conference title in 10 years, the Illini were handed a severe blow when all-around national champion Travis Romagnoli broke his hand in practice Monday. They'll turn to sophomore Leo Oka, ranked sixth nationally in the all-around and ninth on parallel bars. Junior Linh Hoang is ranked in the top eight in the Big Ten on vault.

WOMEN

Where: East Lansing, Mich.

Outlook: Fifth in each of the last two years, the 24th-ranked Illini will battle No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 Penn State, No. 9 Ohio State and No. 16 Minnesota. Sophomore Phaedra Dixon has led the UI with 25 top finishes, including 10 first-place finishes. Senior Kim Berres, the Illini's only returning all-Big Ten performer, and sophomore Gina Weichmann give the Illini a good nucleus.

Location (2):Chicago, State

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