Ankle remains bugaboo for Ruggeri

URBANA — Over the past seven months, Paul Ruggeri’s knowledge of ankle anatomy has become textbook-like.

The words peroneal retinaculum flow off the Illinois gymnast’s tongue with the precision of one of his parallel bars routines. And with good reason.

He speaks from personal experience after having a peroneal ligament in his left ankle surgically repaired last February.
It’s clear, too, that he has a solid grasp of what took place during that trip to the operating table — down to the holes that were drilled into a portion of ankle bone.

More recently, he’s become intimately acquainted with the tibialis posterior muscle and its function in stabilizing the ankle. Familiar, too, with the pain that can result when it’s strained, as Ruggeri’s was during a training session early this month.

“I feel like I know a lot about the ankle,” the senior said. “My major is molecular and cellular biology, so I had taken anatomy and physiology classes prior to injuring myself.”

Yep, Ruggeri already knew plenty about the makeup of the human ankle, and now he knows even more after twice injuring his left one this year.

“It’s been such a struggle,” he said.

For the 2009 U.S. Winter Cup Challenge high bar champion, 2011 has been the height of frustration. What began on a positive note — Ruggeri was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week following each of the Illini’s first two meets — devolved into a spectator’s role due to a season-ending ankle injury Feb. 5. It happened during the Winter Cup in Las Vegas as Ruggeri landed awkwardly on his second vault attempt.

“It was just one of those freak things,” Illini coach Justin Spring said.

It’s an injury the three-time NCAA champion and seven-time All-American has been trying to put in the rearview mirror ever since ... if only that balky left ankle would cooperate.

“It’s one setback after another,” Spring said.

The latest occurred Aug. 5 as Ruggeri was training for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which begin today in St. Paul, Minn.

Deciding it was time to put his repaired ankle to the full test, the Manlius, N.Y., native did his complete floor exercise routine, including the finishing flourish — a double backflip with a full twist. Everything went fine ... until the end.

“I landed short,” Ruggeri said. “I thought I ruined my ankle.”

As it turned out, the guy who seemingly can’t catch a break finally caught one. Sort of. The damage was a strain to the tibialis posterior muscle. Four days later, Ruggeri was feeling noticeably better and determined to give this week’s U.S. national meet — commonly known as the Visa Championships — his best shot. Whatever that might be.

“I’m definitely not going to be at my best,” Ruggeri said. “What I think I have working for me right now is just I don’t have much expectations right now. There’s not going to be that much pressure on me to be performing at my best because I know that I’m not at my best right now. So I can only do the best that I can.”

At his best, an injury-free Ruggeri has shown he can be special. A member of the U.S. National Team since the 2010 Winter Cup, Ruggeri finished among the top three in three events and placed eighth in the all-around at last year’s Visa Championships. That performance earned him the alternate’s spot on the six-member U.S. team for 2010 World Championships.

“The thing that sets Paul aside from other athletes is ... he has some of the highest start values in the world on some of these events, but he makes the routine look effortless,” said Spring, himself a former national champion and a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze-medal team. “Some guys maybe can throw up some big, big routines, but you look at it and you’re kind of cringing. You’re like ‘Oh, God, he struggled through that routine.’

“Paul does elite, world-class routines and makes them look effortless.”

Ruggeri also has the versatility that USA Gymnastics officials look for while choosing teams to represent the country in international events. Such teams typically can be no larger than six athletes. Since Ruggeri is particularly accomplished in four events — high bar, parallel bars, floor exercise and vault —  his overall value to a team is greater than, say, a one- or two-event specialist.

That should work in Ruggeri’s favor at the Visa Championships, which will be used to select the 2011 World Championships team. The concern, however, is that two of his best events aren’t exactly compatible with ankles at less than 100 percent. The concern is how Ruggeri’s left ankle will hold up to the physical pounding inherent in a floor exercise and vault routine?

“It’s kind of like having a pitcher with a shoulder injury,” Spring said. “He’ll do it, but he’s just not at his top game.”

That’s why, since Ruggeri strained the ankle early this month, he’s been brainstorming with Spring and Illini assistant coach Ivan Ivankov on ways to make his routines less stressful on the ankle but still high-scoring.

“If I have a lot of adrenaline I could absolutely do the routine,” Ruggeri said. “But it’s going to come down to what I’m comfortable with and what I know I’m confident in doing. We may keep the exact same routine and then change the dismount so I know I won’t endanger myself again.”

At minimum, Ruggeri wants to maintain his position on the U.S. National Team,

“Especially for me, (this meet) is going to be important because I haven’t been competing all year,” he said.

And if it turns out that a World Championships spot is beyond his current reach, there’s still a place on the U.S. team for the Pan-American Games to vie for.

And who knows? Maybe lightning could strike twice in Ruggeri’s career.

At the 2009 Winter Cup, the then-sophomore suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee while competing in vault — the same event and the same meet in which he originally hurt his ankle last February.

A little over two months later, a quick-healing Ruggeri won NCAA titles in high bar and parallel bars.

It’s at least something to think about now — and Ruggeri definitely has — as the 22-year-old again tries to come back strong from a chilling Winter Cup experience.

“It happened my sophomore year,” he said. “I’ve love for it to happen again.”

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