Nothing routine when Illini takes flight in her event

Nothing routine when Illini takes flight in her event

URBANA – Nicknames are about as much a part of the Illinois women''s gymnastics scene as chalk on their hands.

Just ask Illini junior and Alabama native Ashley Williams, who picked up the moniker Big Ten ''Bama two years ago.

"Our team is really fun about making up cool names," the 2002 Big Ten Freshman of the Year said. "We have a lot of nicknames on our team."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Williams & Co. were quick to tag teammate Cara Pomeroy with her own unique label after the freshman scored the first perfect 10 in the program''s history.

But if you guessed Bo or Bo Derek, you''re showing your age. The star of the movie "10" – which made the phrase "perfect 10" a pop culture fixture for years after the film''s 1979 release – apparently is foreign to a later generation. From their quizzical looks, it''s clear these Illini gymnasts don''t know Bo.

"I''m sure that''s right," UI coach Bob Starkell said. "I don''t think they were even born when that movie came out."

Pomeroy''s own perfect 10, however, did give birth to a new nickname for the gymnast formerly known as Pommie.

"Perfect 10 Pommie is definitely her name for the rest of the year," Williams said.

It''s been a perfect fit for the Ottawa, Ontario, native since she executed what judges considered a perfect routine in the uneven bars April 3 at the NCAA South Central Regional meet in Tucson, Ariz.

Pomeroy''s score must be considered remarkable under any circumstance. The fact it was achieved in a postseason meet – where scoring typically is more stringent than during the regular season – made it all the more extraordinary.

"To get a 10 at regionals was a huge shock," said Pomeroy, the UI''s first regional champion since 1977. "I never expected it."

Not that Pomeroy''s feat was a fluke. She arrived at the UI as a three-time Canadian national champion in the uneven bars and had won the event six times this season heading into regionals. Twice before, Pomeroy had fallen 0.075 short of a perfect score – most recently at the State of Illinois Classic on March 13.

"I knew she had the potential to get that 10 all year long," Williams said. "It was just a matter of time, I guess, until they just decided to give it to her."

L.A. women

Pomeroy''s reward was a berth in the NCAA Championships, which begin today in Los Angeles. She''ll be joined by Williams, who qualified in the all-around, giving Illinois its first national qualifiers in 17 years.

The all-around finals are today, with the top 16 (plus ties) earning All-America first- or second-team honors. Finalists in the individual events also will be determined today, with the top four (plus ties) in each event from each of two sessions advancing to Saturday''s title round.

"I just hope to perform as best I can," Pomeroy said. "I''m not going to worry about the score, getting another perfect 10 or anything like that. I''m just going to think about my routines and do the best I can."

According to the judges at regionals, Pomeroy''s routine that day was as good as it gets. Three of the four judges gave her a 10.0, and the other scored her performance a 9.95. Under the sport''s scoring formula, the high and low scores are thrown out and the remaining two are averaged.

Pomeroy was the only gymnast at her regional to score a 10 and one of three in any of the six regionals to rate that figure.

"Before I started, I wasn''t too nervous," she said. "I just took one skill at a time, and I hit every handstand and it felt really smooth as I was doing it. And I stuck the dismount.

"Overall, it was a really good routine. I don''t know if it was a lot better than all the other ones I (did) this year."

But if ever a routine was deserving of a 10, Starkell said, this was it.

"She''s had some awfully good meets, but this time she put everything together. It''s very hard to make a routine perfect. And I''m sure, to her, she probably would look back and still say, ''I could have done this a little bit better.''

"But for myself, who watched the routine about as close as you could be without being on the bars with her, I couldn''t find a mistake."

When Pomeroy''s score was posted, it created an Illini reaction that rated a 10 on the celebration scale.

"Everyone was jumping up and down and hugging me," she said. "It was unbelievable."

Williams, who was next in the UI rotation in the uneven bars, was chalking up when Pomeroy''s 10 appeared on the scoreboards. Williams immediately rushed to her teammate to give her a hug, then went out and recorded her own career high in the bars: a 9.925.

"It got me really pumped up for my routine," Williams said. "I wasn''t really that nervous anymore because I was still so excited about her landing her routine. So it worked out for both of us."

Follow the leader

Unlike Pomeroy, it wasn''t immediately obvious to Williams that she had qualified for nationals. In fact, when the Illini''s record-holder in the all-around placed seventh in the multiple events at regionals, Williams didn''t consider that she also might be heading to Los Angeles.

"It''s always been a goal to go to nationals, but I wasn''t expecting it that day," she said. "I knew I had a solid meet, but I just completely forgot about the fact that (I might have qualified)."

But her coaches didn''t. As Williams was packing up her belongings after the meet, Starkell and his assistants were checking with the scorer''s table. They learned that Williams, with her 39.275 total, had finished seventh in the all-around but was second among all-arounders not on a national-qualifying team. Because the top two such all-arounders from each regional also advance, Williams was going to join Pomeroy in L.A.

Since good news travels fast, a startled Williams saw UI assistants Kim Mazza and Becky Ashton excitedly sprinting toward her, followed by a group of her teammates.

"She had no clue what was going on," Starkell said of Williams. "I''m not even sure if she believed them."

Perhaps the happiest Illini in the group offering congratulations was Pomeroy.

"When I found out I was going for sure, I was like, ''Oh, my gosh, I''m going to be all by myself,'' and I was kind of nervous," she said. "But when Ashley found out she was going, I was so excited because we''ll be able to motivate each other and cheer each other on."

As luck would have it, a random drawing placed both Illini in the same rotation tonight.

"For them, that''s the closest they can be to being a team," Starkell said.

And their good fortune doesn''t end there. Pomeroy and Wil-liams were assigned to the rotation with host school UCLA, which undoubtedly will have the largest contingent of fans on hand at Pauley Pavilion. Don''t be surprised, Starkell said, if those Bruins fans adopt his Illini.

"In the sport of gymnastics, if you rotate with that (host) team, they generally become fans of the individual qualifiers that tag along," he said.

You can reach Jeff Huth at (217) 351-5384 or via e-mail at jhuth@news-gazette.com.

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