CHAMPAIGN – His life''s work is a sport defined by its acrobatic twists and turns. Appropriate, perhaps, given the sudden and unexpected change of direction Yoshi Hayasaki''s own life took in 1965.
If not for the fortunate intersection that year of an American coach on sabbatical in Tokyo and the emergence of a talented, young Japanese gymnast, Hayasaki likely still would be living in his Far East homeland.
Instead, he is wrapping up his 28th season at the helm of a top-ranked Illinois gymnastics team. A team in search this weekend of the school''s 10th NCAA championship in the sport.
"That''s something I wasn''t even thinking about," said Hayasaki, who as a high schooler could foresee a life in Japan as a physical education teacher or perhaps in the business arena. "I''d read about America. Watched the movies, like ''West Side Story.''
"That''s some place in the future I wanted to visit someday, but not immediately. Because I had my plans and goals that I wanted to accomplish."
By now, Hayasaki''s accomplishments are well known to Illini fans and to those who follow gymnastics in this country. A two-time NCAA all-around champion at Washington in the early 1970s, Hayasaki also lists a 1967 Amateur Athletic Union title and a 1968 U.S. Gymnastics Federation crown among his achievements. His imprint on coaching is just as indelible. The 1989 national Coach of the Year has produced one NCAA title, five Big Ten crowns, 45 All-Americans, four individual collegiate champions and three Olympians at Illinois. His extensive international coaching resume is highlighted by service on the U.S. Olympic staff at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"He''s carried the excellence of his own performances over to his teams as a coach," former Michigan gymnastics coach Newt Loken said.
Pleased to meet you
As a youth growing up in Osaka, gymnastics was nowhere on the radar screen of Shoichiro and Miyo Hayasaki''s third child.
"I loved baseball," Yoshi Hayasaki said. "Swimming, I loved that."
Then one day in junior high, Hayasaki noticed the school''s gymnastics team practicing, and the sight held his attention. He began to show up regularly, taking in the workouts from a balcony above.
Eventually, a coach noticed the curious onlooker and approached him.
"Are you interested? Why not come out?" he said.
Hayasaki did and proved to be a quick and astute study. By the end of his junior high career, he was winning city and district titles.
It was then Hayasaki learned what a big deal the sport was in his country. High school coaches began showing up at his door, hoping to recruit him to their school.
Hayasaki settled on Tenri High in Nara, about a three-hour train ride from his hometown. By his senior year, Hayasaki had developed into one of the top young gymnasts in Japan, placing fourth in the national high school meet.
By then, Hayasaki had raised the bar significantly on his gymnastics aspirations.
"To become an Olympian and to win a medal, that was my dream," he said.
For Japan''s best and brightest, it was not an unrealistic dream. The country was known for developing some of the world''s most accomplished gymnasts. At the highest levels, Japan was in the midst of ruling the sport, winning every men''s Olympic team title from 1960 to ''76. Beginning in 1964, the country also produced three consecutive Olympic champions in the men''s all-around.
To reach his goal, Hayasaki planned to continue his training at one of Japan''s top universities. He''d whittled the list to four, all with top-flight academic and gymnastics credentials.
"I really couldn''t decide which one I wanted to go to," Hayasaki said.
Then fate intervened.
While Hayasaki was sorting through his options, a letter arrived.
It was from Eric Hughes, the gymnastics coach at Washington. At the time, Hughes was on a half-year sabbatical and living in Tokyo. He''d arrived there in fall 1964, primarily to attend the Tokyo Olympics but also to study Japanese training methods and to recruit for his program.
"It was very uncommon," said Hughes, who brought three Japanese gymnasts to Washington in the next year and another after that. "I got a lot of criticism from other (U.S.) coaches across the country that we should be training American gymnasts and not foreign gymnasts in our colleges.
"I felt at that time quite badly about it because I had really intended on getting one Japanese gymnast who would serve as a spark, a stimulus. I was kind of embarrassed when I got three."
Hughes had sent letters to the top 25 finishers in the Japan national high school meet. The letter piqued Hayasaki''s interest, and he was one of five to reply.
"There were so many things I had questions about," he said.
Hayasaki traveled to Tokyo with his father, an older brother and a translator. After hearing Hughes'' pitch, Hayasaki was intrigued, even though his goal of becoming an Olympian might suffer by leaving behind proven training.
"Obviously, at that time, Japan was much better in gymnastics," he said.
Hayasaki also knew that if he stayed, his life after gymnastics likely would follow a predictable course. He''d seen older gymnasts move on to careers in teaching or business. Perhaps he would, too, but the opportunity in America promised some tantalizing possibilities first.
"I just think it was more challenging for me, more adventurous," Hayasaki said. "I saw my future life, and this was unknown to me, this journey to America. It''s so much more interesting."
His coaches, and, more importantly, his father, were against it. Had Hayasaki been the oldest in his family – with the attendant responsibilities to his parents and siblings that are part of the Japanese culture – he would have acquiesced. But Hayasaki stood his ground, and his father finally gave his blessing – with one condition: finish what you start.
Slow boat to Seattle
Now, Hayasaki had to figure out a way to get to Washington''s campus. Traveling by air was out of the question.
"It was very expensive," he said. "Air fare was unbelievable at that time, and we were not a wealthy family."
Hayasaki arranged the cheapest mode of transportation he could find: a cargo ship from Yokohama to Longview, Wash. It would take 2 weeks. As a going-away present, his parents filled two suitcases with new clothes.
Hayasaki was among about a half-dozen passengers on the SS Idaho. With an American crew on board, Hayasaki was looking forward to being exposed to the English language he needed to learn. Instead, he was assigned to a room with two others from his own country.
"So we ended up speaking Japanese all the way," Hayasaki said.
But that was a minor problem compared to his introduction to seasickness. It set in on Day 4.
"I threw up to the point where there was nothing coming out," Hayasaki said. "That was the most miserable time. ... I''m all by myself at age 18. And I''m so sick that I felt like I don''t mind just dying here.
"It''s that kind of feeling, plus the loneliness of where I''m going to."
It took more than three days, but Hayasaki began to feel better and settled into a routine for the rest of the voyage. It included daily workouts on the deck, as he jumped rope and practiced on a small, portable set of parallel bars. Not exactly a common sight for the crew and ship''s captain.
"I''m sure he was thinking, ''Who is this little boy training on the deck every morning?'' " Hayasaki said.
By the time the ship arrived, Hayasaki was all too eager to disembark and breathe in some clean Pacific Northwest air.
"I''ll never forget the smell (of the ship)," he said. "The mixture of the oil from the boat and the (unfamiliar) food."
There was one more complication. Hughes arranged to have someone pick up Hayasaki at the dock and drive him to Seattle. No one showed. There he stood with two suitcases in a strange land, unable to speak the language.
"I''m thinking, ''Where am I going to go?'' " he said. "I was ready to sleep there or maybe just start walking."
Finally, a Volkswagen rolled into the parking lot, with Hayasaki praying it was his ride.
Trip of the tongue
Hayasaki''s bumpy ride was just beginning. To be accepted at Washington, he and other foreign students needed to pass an exam gauging their command of English.
"There was no way," said Hayasaki, who failed the exam twice.
Hughes anticipated as much and arranged for Hayasaki to be placed with a host family and to spend the next year in high school.
"I think the first four, five months was the toughest because I just could not communicate at all," he said. "What helped was my gymnastics. I was able to work out, so that was my way of getting my emotions out."
In fall 1966, on his third try, Hayasaki passed the examand entered college. His most valuable possession became a Japanese-English dictionary. With his grasp of the language still limited, Hayasaki was never without the red-covered book while doing homework or taking a test.
"It took twice, three times more than the average American student to go through (homework) because every word I had to look up," said Hayasaki, who still has the well-worn book. "It''s so torn up because I used almost every page."
Progress was just as slow on the gymnastics front. Hayasaki wasn''t eligible to compete with the high school team. Upon entering Washington, Hayasaki remained on the sidelines because of an NCAA rule then in effect that banned freshman competition. But he was allowed to work out with his teammates, and Hughes discovered first- hand that the vaunted Japanese work ethic was no myth.
"He was the hardest worker I had in the gym," said Hughes, an Illinois graduate who coached at Washington from 1950 to ''80. "So many days, our practice had ended, and I wanted to get home. And there was Yoshi: "One more time, Coach; one more time.''
"And one more time would get to be 10 or 12 more times. So I would work with Yoshi on an individual basis after practice more than I did with anybody else."
A turning point
In 1967, Hayasaki still was a year away from competing for the Huskies. But that didn''t mean he couldn''t enter a U.S. national championship. He''d done so once before and, by his own admission, "failed miserably. My conditioning was really bad."
This time was different. Stunningly so.
Hayasaki was a virtual unknown as the AAU nationals approached, although Hughes did his darnedest to change that.
"In our sport, you have to create a name for an individual," Hughes said. "If the judges don''t know you, they''re not going to vote very high for you. I started talking about Yoshi to anyone who would listen. I said, ''He''s going to win the national AAU.''
"No one, of course, believed me, and no one had heard of him. But by the time the meet came along, everyone was looking for this new little gymnast from Washington."
Hughes'' publicity push wasn''t just smoke.
"I thought he had a good shot," he said. "I was pretty sure he''d be no lower than second."
As it turned out, Hughes'' faith in his gymnast was justified. Hayasaki won the all-around.
One year later, he did it again. This time, the national championships was run by the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. Hayasaki not only repeated as all-around champion but won three individual event titles.
"He really dominated that meet," Hughes said.
With the Olympics approaching, Hayasaki''s coming-out party couldn''t have been better timed. But he faced a dilemma. Unable to leave school to return to Japan, he missed the Olympic Trials in his native country. And to be eligible for the U.S. Olympic Trials, he needed to become a U.S. citizen.
When Washington Sen. Warren G. Magnuson wrote a letter of endorsement, that hurdle seemingly was cleared. Then another arose. And another.
Within two weeks of applying for U.S. citizenship, even though his application had yet to be acted upon, Hayasaki received notice that he''d been drafted. He was to report for a physical, with an ultimate destination of Vietnam a real possibility.
"It was a scary time," Hayasaki said.
Then another dramatic development intervened. During a practice, Hayasaki tore an Achilles'' tendon. Arriving for his induction physical in a cast, he was, of course, rejected for military service.
"At the same time, my hope of going to the Olympics is gone," Hayasaki said. "I was miserable."
The misery continued in 1969, when he tore his other Achilles'' tendon and missed the entire collegiate season.
But Hayasaki was nothing if not resilient. He returned in 1970 to win the NCAA all-around. Then the fifth-year senior repeated the feat in 1971. Along with a runner-up finish in 1968, Hayasaki never placed lower than second in the NCAA all-around in his three varsity collegiate seasons.
"He was a thorough technician," said Loken, who coached at Michigan from 1947 to ''83. "He perfected his skills."
A new direction
After the 1971 NCAA meet, then-Illini coach Charlie Pond offered Hayasaki a spot on his staff as a graduate assistant. He accepted, for a time juggling graduate school with teaching, coaching and his own gymnastics career.
It was a hectic lifestyle. Ultimately, too hectic, Hayasaki decided. Something had to give, and that something was his goal of making the 1972 Olympics.
"With all the things I was doing, it was too much to handle," he said. "My Olympic dreams were kind of fading at the time."
Instead, Hayasaki concentrated on obtaining his master''s degree, which he earned in 1973, and assisting Pond. When Pond ended his Hall of Fame career after the 1973 season, Hayasaki was named to succeed him.
And what of his Olympic goal? In a way, he''s reached that, too. Vicariously. Two of Hayasaki''s Illini have represented the United States in the Games: Charles Lakes and Dominick Minicucci in 1988 and Minicucci again in 1992.
"My dreams and goals have changed," Hayasaki said. "I want my gymnasts to be Olympians. It''s just as satisfying as making the Olympic team yourself. Seriously, that''s how I feel."
You can reach Jeff Huth at (217) 351-5384 or via e-mail at email@example.com.