Illini struggles past the pain

Illini struggles past the pain

CHAMPAIGN – Remember Kerri Strug''s performance for the U.S. women''s gymnastics team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

Illinois'' Erik Garnett did his best Strug impersonation Saturday at the NCAA Men''s Gymnastics Championships.

Garnett competed on parallel bars four weeks after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a meet at Oklahoma. Wearing a brace and landing his dismount on one leg, Garnett scored an 8.7 in the event while giving his team a huge emotional lift.

"He has the most heart of any athlete I can imagine," Illinois'' Ben Newman said. "The guy puts more fight in than Rocky Balboa. When he tore his ACL, that night he was saying, ''I''m making it to NCAAs.'' Most people would think, ''I tore my ACL; hopefully after six months of rehab I''ll be walking again.'' An hour later, he''s ready to compete."

It was a remarkable moment. Garnett said doctors "pretty much said I couldn''t compete," but he wasn''t willing to listen. He said his motivation was to help the team, and he wouldn''t have bothered to compete with a torn ACL if this were the individual finals.

"The doctor said the only way he''d let me compete is if my mom signed a letter stating that it was OK for me to destroy the rest of my knee," Garnett said. "He said I''d probably tear the meniscus and there was a good chance I''d tear the (posterior cruciate ligament) and other ligaments in my knee. I figured if I needed surgery anyway, I might as well do it all."

Through rehab, Garnett practiced but only once did he attempt a dismount, and that resulted in him dislocating his knee. He chose a simple dismount for his Saturday routine, and he basically landed on one knee.

"It definitely hurt pretty bad, but I had such an adrenaline rush that I didn''t think about it during the rest of my routine until just before the dismount," he said.

Garnett''s score ended up counting toward the Illini''s team total. The Illini struggled in parallel bars in Friday''s prelims, and he was ready to step in.

"I saw everybody missing yesterday, and I just about said, ''Put me in there right now,'' " Garnett said.

On Saturday morning, UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki was thinking along the same lines.

"Based on our performance (Friday), we really needed him," Hayasaki said. "He''s been a rock on this team in two events. His desire to compete was so strong, and we both agreed, ''Let''s go for it.'' "

A senior, Garnett said he didn''t feel his performance did any further damage, so his mother''s signature on the doctor''s release was not in vain.

"She said she knew how much gymnastics means to me, and she wasn''t going to stand in the way if this is what I wanted to do," Garnett said.

Spring comes close

Illinois'' Justin Spring finished 13th in the all-around competition despite not competing in pommel horse, the Illini''s final event.

Pommel horse is Spring''s worst event by far, but he was in the UI''s tentative lineup for that event. However, when the time came, Illinois was fighting Oklahoma and Penn State for the team title with the Illini standing fourth heading into the final rotation.

So Hayasaki swapped Spring for senior Mike Filla, whose career high is 9.5. Spring''s career high is 8.55.

As a result, Spring finished with an all-around total of 46.600, well short of champion Luis Vargas of Penn State (56.475).

Spring''s night was going well until floor exercise. After a subpar rings set (8.7), he posted a 9.5 on vault, a 9.725 on parallel bars and a 9.675 on high bar. But on the floor, where he''s ranked first in the country, Spring couldn''t land his final tumbling pass and received a 9.0.

"I knew we were close (in team scores), and I had to make a decision at the end whether to put Justin in the all-around or use Mike Filla to finish strong on pommel horse," Hayasaki said. "As soon as Justin had a little break on the floor exercise, that was the (decisive factor). We needed (Filla''s) score for the team score."

Vargas'' title capped a star-crossed season. In March, he took 40 stitches to the back of his head after a parallel bars warmup went awry. He was sixth in the Big Ten all-around competition two weeks ago. Conference champ Randy Monahan of Ohio State was third Saturday.

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