Gymnast gives his all to team

Gymnast gives his all to team

CHAMPAIGN – When nine-time All-American Travis Romagnoli completed his Illinois gymnastics career last spring, the Illini had one returning All-American in the all-around, Leo Oka, and one spot to fill.

In stepped Linh Hoang.

The senior has joined Oka at the highest level, gaining top-four national rankings in the parallel bars (fourth), rings (third) and vault (first).

"Linh has stepped up and made this team stronger than the last three seasons where Travis was involved," UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "That's one of the big reasons."

And if Hoang can get his high bar routine to become a bit more agreeable, he might move into the upper echelon of American gymnasts, Hayasaki said.

"He's a much more consistent, confident performer in those five events," Hayasaki said. "But there's one event that's really holding him back from becoming one of the best in the country and that's high bar. He's always had that problem, he tells me, since he was a little kid. He made some progress, but this event is still far behind the other five."

Hoang's been a standout in the other five. Last year he established a school record in the vault with a 9.9 score. He has Illinois' best score this winter on the still rings (tied with Oka at 9.4) and is second-best on parallel bars (9.0). His 9.35 vault in the Windy City Invitational last month tops the Illini.

But that Windy City event is Hoang's only attempt in the all-around. He finished second, .20 behind winner Oka. In the interests of team scoring, Hoang has been competing in five events, skipping high bar.

"I wouldn't say I don't like it," said Hoang, born in Vietnam and raised in Houston. "It's frustrating because I have to work twice as hard on it. The skills just don't come. It takes twice the amount of work to do it to get up to the level of the others. They come more easily."

Hayasaki said Hoang's competitiveness has been his trademark. And his willingness to sacrifice for the team has helped Illinois rise to No. 5 in the national rankings. They'll take on No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday at Huff Hall, along with the women's teams from both schools.

"He's already contributing greatly with those five events," Hayasaki said. "We have good high bar performers, and unless he does better than the other five or six guys, he won't help the team. But individually, if he wants to become an all-around All-American or if he wants to make the national team, he has to improve. It's a matter of him doing well for himself or doing well for the team. Right now his focus is on the team."

Hoang continues to train on high bar. He said his goal is to help the team in any way possible. But he acknowledged that with a better high bar routine his chances of NCAA glory would increase.

"I'd give myself a better opportunity to win a national championship," Hoang said. "But at this time in my career, I'm competing for the team. After this year, I'm planning to continue my training for the Olympics in 2004, so I will continue to train all six events intensively."

Other than high bar, there is no weak link. Hoang won the national championship on the still rings and placed 12th in the all-around at the USA Junior Championships in 1996. He was solid in vault and floor exercise, too, Hayasaki said.

"This season I'm really more balanced," Hoang said.

As a result, the Illini have a solid 1-2 punch in Oka and Hoang. With improvement from Greg Cook, Sean-Paul Crawford, Jonathan Ham, J.G. Ketchen and Eric Nishimoto, mixed with freshmen Bob Rogers and Scott Wetterling, the Illini have won three of four duals, falling only to No. 1 Michigan.

Hoang hasn't been surprised. His improvement, he said, is partly attributed to a better training environment.

"The attitude of the team is a lot different this year," he said. "We're more of a team this year."

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