Oka corrals talent

CHAMPAIGN – Leo Oka wasn't alone in the gym. It just felt that way.

"I started out with two other people my age, but they eventually quit," the Illinois gymnast said, recalling his years in a club program in Toronto. "The rest were smaller kids. I was basically training by myself.

"That was a tough time motivationally."

Not so tough, though, that Oka couldn't make a name for himself on the Canadian gymnastics landscape. By the time he was a high school senior, the Scarborough, Ontario, native not only was competing in the Canadian National Championships, but placing seventh in the all-around.

Oka also was, he would later realize, unconsciously cutting corners in his solitary training. And getting by on his natural talent. And leaning on routines that produced all-or-nothing results.

"I was trying to do the big, spectacular skills without really preparing well for it," the All-Big Ten sophomore said.

Those spectacular skills provided some eye-catching moments in a videotape Oka put together and mailed to a number of collegiate coaches in the United States during his senior year. Among the recipients was Yoshi Hayasaki.

"I saw some talent in him," the Illini coach said. "I saw some good flexibility he has, some good rhythm."

What Hayasaki could not see via VCR was Oka's less-than-sound training background.

"He really didn't have a (hands-on) coach there to guide him," Hayasaki said. "He has trained himself for many years. His training was very inefficient."

That much became quickly apparent when Oka arrived at the UI in the fall of 1997.

"He just had a very difficult time and didn't have confidence in himself," Hayasaki said. "He had a lot of misses in the competition. It was difficult for him because he was so into his own training and he had so many negative points."

It's not uncommon for Hayasaki to break down a freshman's routine to its most basic level before building it back up. With Oka, it was a necessity.

"He needed more guidance than anybody else," the 23rd-year Illini head coach said.

When Hayasaki wasn't giving Oka individual instruction, assistant Takashi Kobayashi was.

"They took me a step back to get me two steps forward," Oka recalled, "to make sure I had the basics to build upon. It's a lengthy process and I think it needed to be done over a full year. I think the results are showing this year."

On that, Oka will get no argument from the rest of the collegiate gymnastics world. When the Illini defeated defending national champion California-Berkeley on the road last month, Oka won the all-around with a career-best 57.525.

Six days earlier, in an Illini victory over second-ranked Ohio State, Oka reached the 57-point plateau for the first time in his career. His all-around score of 57.40 included career highs in three events.

And at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago, Oka barely missed hitting 57 again, finishing with a 56.925 to place sixth. Then, in the individual event finals, Oka hit a career high in the parallel bars (9.687) to place fourth.

Going into Saturday's NCAA East Regional at Huff Hall, Oka is ranked ninth nationally in the all-around and eighth in the parallel bars.

"It's really happened in the last month," Hayasaki said of Oka's emergence as a force in the sport. "We began to see him develop into a solid gymnast this year and then start to blossom."

It couldn't have come at a better time for the Illini, who suffered the mother of all bad breaks March 22 when reigning NCAA all-around champion Travis Romagnoli broke his hand. With Romagnoli lost for the rest of the season, Oka's importance to eighth-ranked Illinois' postseason hopes is obvious.

Oka said he's as ready as can be for the challenge.

"The main thing is I'm a lot more confident when I'm competing," he said. "Mentally and physically, I know what I need to do to get ready for competitions."

Without Romagnoli, the odds are long that Illinois will advance to the NCAA Championships for the second year in a row. But individual places in the national meet will be there for the taking Saturday night, and Hayasaki would love to see Oka make his grab.

"Leo needs to get out there and compete with the best," the UI coach said. "The national championships is a very important stage for him to set up for the next year."

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