Illinois senior looking for third pommel horse title at conference meet
URBANA – Teammates started calling him "Big Ten Ben" toward the end of his sophomore season.
Ben Newman has done nothing since to make them reconsider their choice of nicknames.
"That kind of stuck," the Illinois senior said.
With good reason. Newman is a two-time defending Big Ten champion in the pommel horse and will go for title No. 3 this weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich.
If it happens, the Illini tri-captain will join some mighty exclusive company. Since the league began crowning a pommel horse champion in 1907, two athletes have won the event three times.
The last was Iowa's Bill Buck, from 1958 to 1960. The other is former Illini Harry Koehnemann (1939-41).
"To win three in a row, especially in the pommel horse, it tells you something about that particular athlete," veteran UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "It is definitely one of the most difficult events. It takes so much of your balance and coordination. It (requires) such intricate skills.
"Anyone who can do it three times has to be very good. And I think Ben is that kind of gymnast."
You'd never guess it now, but the Denver native once was ready to write off what's become his signature event.
"I actually didn't like pommel horse the first couple years I did gymnastics," said Newman, who began taking lessons as a kindergartner. "It was my worst event. Then one day I got a new coach."
In one more example of what a small world this can be, former Illini All-American Kevin McMurchie became one of Newman's club coaches when the youngster was 10. For Newman, it was a fortunate crossing of paths. With one simple suggestion from McMurchie – to push out more on his swing and get his hips farther forward – Newman saw almost instant results.
"He said one thing and it kind of clicked with me," he said. "And all the sudden it went from being my worst event to being one of my better events."
It would become Newman's best event. For five consecutive years, beginning in 1997, he was the USA Gymnastics Region IX pommel horse champion in his age division. Twice during that span, Newman was a national silver medalist.
Ever the faithful alumnus, McMurchie made sure his former coach was aware of the Denver dynamo.
"He's the one who told me, 'If you can get this kid, you're going to be very happy,' " Hayasaki said.
Indeed, Newman has given Hayasaki reason to smile from the time he stepped on the UI campus. A three-time NCAA qualifier, he broke the All-America threshold last year by placing fourth at nationals. Besides those twin Big Ten titles, Newman also is the school record-holder in the pommel horse at 9.8 – a figure he reached four times last season.
His stature as one of the nation's best was confirmed again last week when Newman was selected as one of five finalists for the Nissen-Emery Award, which annually honors the top male collegiate gymnast.
"I think he's the most solid performer in pommel horse of anyone I've seen in recent years," Hayasaki said. "Physically, he's gifted. You can see the strength he carries.
"At the same time, he's driven. His training is very intense. He's a very determined gymnast. I think he has everything going for him right now."
Newman might need to be at the top of his game this weekend to retain his league crown. The pommel horse title chase figures to be a battle royal, with all four of the nation's top-ranked gymnasts on hand.
Ohio State's Willie Ito is the current No. 1, followed by Penn State's Luis Vargas, Newman and Ohio State's DJ Bucher.
"Every year it gets a little more difficult," Newman said of the Big Ten meet. "The competition gets a little bit better."
In truth, however, Newman has his eyes on a bigger prize: an NCAA title.
So far, it's been an elusive pursuit for the Illini senior. After his first Big Ten crown in 2003, Newman failed to qualify for the NCAA pommel horse finals (top eight). Last year, he posted the top score (9.775) during qualifying, only to fade to fourth in the finals while teammate Bob Rogers emerged as the national champion.
"If anyone had to beat me, I'm glad it was Bob," Newman said.
Still, the sting of that disappointment lingers.
"It seems that I always seem to do best at the Big Ten meet," Newman said. "I've had a little trouble at the nationals. ... Hopefully this year I can do both."
Big Ten gym dandies
When: Today (6:10 p.m.) and Saturday (6:10 p.m.)
Where: Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor
Schedule of events: Team and all-around competition today; individual event finals Saturday
Defending team champion: Illinois
Returning individual champions: All-around – Randy Monahan (Ohio State); floor exercise – Justin Spring (Illinois); vault – Andrew DiGiore (Michigan); pommel horse – Ben Newman (Illinois); high bar – Ronald Ferris (Ohio State)
Illini update: The Illini will try to win back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 1988-89. It could happen if Spring is back to 100 percent after rehabbing a high ankle sprain for much of the season. Spring gave every indication he''sfully recovered during Illinois'' last meet, on March 12 against Illinois-Chicago, by winning the all-around. It was the 2004 NCAA high bar champion''s first stab at performing every event this season. The No. 3 Illini''s sternest competition figures to come from No. 1 Ohio State. The teams have met twice. Illinois finished one spot ahead of the Buckeyes in winning the season-opening Windy City Invitational in Chicago. In a dual meet Jan. 29 at Huff Hall, the teams tied.
When: Saturday (6 p.m.)
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City
At stake: Team, all-around and individual event titles
Defending team champion: Michigan
Returning individual champions: All-around – Elise Ray (Michigan); uneven bars – Ray; balance beam – Ray
Illini update: It''s now or never for six seniors who''ve never finished higher than sixth in the seven-team league meet. The No. 33 Illini should feel a sense of urgency on another front, too. They need a strong team score to bolster their bid for a second straight trip to the NCAA regionals. Sophomore Cara Pomeroy was Illinois'' highest Big Ten finisher in 2004, fifth in the balance beam. Her forte, however, clearly is the uneven bars. At the South Central Regionals last year, Pomeroy earned the first 10.0 in UI history. She''s remained among the best in the event, winning seven bars titles this season and ranking fifth nationally entering this meet.