URBANA — It's one thing to be a member of the U.S. men's gymnastics team and participate in its training program. Illinois junior All-American Tyler Mizoguchi had been there and done that.
It's another to represent your home country in an international meet, something that until recently was missing from Mizoguchi's Team USA resume.
"I've never really experienced that before," the Houston native said. "I've always wanted to really get out there and compete internationally for the United States."
Denied that opportunity in 2010 by an ankle injury, Mizoguchi achieved his goal last weekend in Canada.
"It was amazing," Mizoguchi said before practice this week at Kenney Gym. "All the Canadian guys were so much fun, so welcoming. And the Chinese guys were cool, too."
But international camaraderie wasn't the only positive Mizoguchi took from the Kyle Shewfelt Gymnastics Festival in Calgary, Alberta. The 5-foot-2 dynamo won a parallel bars gold medal and claimed silvers in the all-around and still rings.
By meet's end, Mizoguchi accounted for half of the six individual medals the U.S. won en route to third place.
"Canada was such a confidence booster for me," Mizoguchi said. "I went in, I don't want to say nervous, but ... not knowing how it was going to turn out."
Speaking of not knowing, Mizoguchi couldn't restrain his curiosity about how his Illini teammates were faring back in Champaign last Saturday even as he was immersed in Day 2 of his first meet for Team USA.
In his absence, Illinois was wrapping up its regular season schedule against Illinois-Chicago. UI assistant coach Ivan Ivankov — who accompanied Mizoguchi to Calgary and served on the Team USA staff for the meet — and Illini head coach Justin Spring kept each other updated from their respective sites via texting.
When Mizoguchi checked in with Ivankov one too many times for the latest news from Huff Hall, U.S. coach Tom Meadows intervened.
"Oh, he noticed," Mizoguchi said. "The head coach was like, "Focus. Just keep your head in the game.' "
This week, the former Texas state champion's focus is on the Big Ten Championships. More specifically, on helping Illinois win a third straight conference title — a feat no UI team has accomplished since coach Charlie Pond's dynastic Illini won 11 in a row from 1950 to '60.
Based on how high he's set the bar lately, Mizoguchi appears poised to turn in a difference-making performance when the league meet comes to Huff Hall Friday and Saturday. One week before his triple-medal showing in Canada, Mizoguchi put up career-best scores in four of six events en route to setting a UI record in the all-around (90.800).
"He's really banging on all cylinders — in the gym, training and competing," Spring said. "He does not have a weakness. He just can get on any event and put up a good score. Right now, I don't see anyone close to him in the all-around going into the Big Ten Championships."
Mizoguchi, ranked second in the nation in the all-around, also must be considered a strong Big Ten title contender in parallel bars. He's No. 2 nationally in his signature event.
"I've always just been a good natural swinger on P-bars," Mizoguchi said, "and Justin's really helped me push on that event."
The Illini junior might not have a better tutor in the event, considering that Spring is a former U.S. Championships and Pan American Championships gold medalist in parallel bars."
"His P-bar, when he's on, I don't think anyone can contest him in the NCAA," Spring said. "He just went 15.75 internationally in Canada. He is world class on that event. ... His potential in that event is huge."
Mizoguchi's breakout season couldn't have come at a better time for Illinois. Regarded as a potential national title team entering the year, the Illini suffered a serious blow when three-time NCAA champion and 2009 U.S. high bar gold medalist Paul Ruggeri tore a ligament in his left ankle in early February. Mizoguchi witnessed the season-ending injury, which happened at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas — the meet at which Mizoguchi earned his most recent roster spot with the U.S. National Team.
"I saw it happen and I was just praying," Mizoguchi said. "I was like, "I really hope he's OK, I really hope he's going to be able to finish this year.' "
When the seriousness of Ruggeri's injury became apparent, "we all really had to step it up," Mizoguchi said. "Start upping our difficulty and make sure we were hitting our sets with as minimal deductions as possible."
In Ruggeri's absence, Spring says Mizoguchi has become "the anchor" of an Illini team that will take a No. 4 ranking into the conference meet — highest among Big Ten teams.
"He's really stepped up this year," the UI coach said. "Because Paul was out, he's ... rose to the challenge."
Spring's not surprised. He's learned it's simply in Mizoguchi's nature.
"He enjoys rising up to be the guy — like Jordan, take that last shot," Spring said. "Some athletes are scared to death of that. Some athletes cherish it and want it and can take it on.
"And Tyler's one of those guys. "
Just the facts
Schedule: 7 p.m. Friday (team and all-around finals); 7 p.m. Saturday (individual event finals).
Where: Huff Hall
Tickets: All sessions — adult $14; student/youth $8; Single-session passes — adult $8; student/youth $5; Can be purchased in advance at the UI Athletic Ticket Office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by calling 217-333-3470. Single-session passes are available at Huff Hall before each session.
TV: Big Ten Network
Defending team champion: Illinois
Returning individual defending champions: Chris Cameron, Michigan (all-around, floor exercise); C.J. Padera, Illinois (parallel bars); Daniel Ribeiro, Illinois (pommel horse); Brandon Wynn, Ohio State (still rings)