Maestas: Wait worth it

URBANA — The news brought C.J. Maestas to tears.

The most coveted college gymnastics recruit in the nation had just been informed that, for the fourth time, he'd fallen short on his ACT test score. At that point, a pained Maestas could no longer hold in his emotions.

"I was giving everything I had; it just wasn't happening," the Illinois freshman said.

Those repeated failures, however, didn't keep Maestas from trying again. And again.

The Corrales, N.M., native missed on attempt No. 5, as well, before taking the test a sixth time. Then, like all those previous times, he waited and hoped.

The suspense ended in May 2011. While doing his laundry one morning at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Maestas received a call from Illini coach Justin Spring.

What he heard prompted the U.S. National Team member to drop the phone and to burst into tears.

Just then, one of his fellow gymnasts at the training center walked into the laundry room. John Orozco didn't need to be told what had just happened.

"Oh, my God. You got the score!" Orozco blurted out.

Needing a score of at least 19, Maestas had cleared his ACT barrier to become academically eligible under NCAA rules. Finally, he was free and clear to enroll at the UI, a school he had verbally committed to midway through his senior year at Cibola High in Albuquerque, N.M.

After sitting out an entire school year, Maestas now was months away from joining a bunch of guys who had embraced him as an Illini long before he officially became one of them last fall.

Throughout his academic ordeal, Maestas couldn't go more than a few days without getting a call from Spring. Couldn't log on to his computer and not see a Facebook message or an email from one of his teammates-to-be.

Their support and encouragement, Maestas now says, played a major role in convincing him not to give up on getting into college.

"I thought, 'Man, these guys aren't quitting on me,' " he said. "I can't do that to them. It was huge to me."

College beckons

The oldest of four children of Frank and Cindy Maestas, C.J. is the first in his family to attend college. For years, the thought of going beyond high school never crossed his mind. His actions in the classroom indicated as much.

"Sad to say, but school wasn't really my main priority," Maestas said. "School was always a struggle for me in high school. I never really put forth the effort."

But the possibility of college was thrust upon him through his extraordinary gymnastics talent. Talent that would earn him a spot on the U.S. Junior National Team in his early teens and on the Senior National Team for the first time in February 2011 after winning a gold medal in still rings and bronze in the all-around at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge.

By his junior year in high school, a Who's Who of college gymnastics programs had come calling with scholarship offers. If Maestas was to make college a reality, however, he had academic ground to make up.

"His athleticism (would take) him to really anywhere he wanted to go," Spring said. "But he had to do an immediate turnaround and try to make up two years of just kind of not putting an emphasis on school work."

Even with a new-found academic commitment, Maestas would learn that some damage had been done. Although his GPA become much improved, it still was pulled down by low grades in his early high school years. And under the NCAA's sliding eligibility scale, he would need a higher ACT score to compensate for a lagging GPA.

At first, Maestas tried to prepare for the test on his own. When that didn't net results, he left home for the Olympic Training Center, where his days consisted of a mix of gymnastics practice and academic study, the latter aided by wrestler who volunteered to tutor Maestas.

"I don't think he quite knew what it really was to sit down and go over the ACT (prep) book and really study," Spring said. "And once he finally got that (daily) structure, that's I think what really helped him finally turn the corner."

Not that there weren't bumps in the road and major moments of doubt. After the third failed ACT attempt, Maestas had a heart-to-heart with his mother.

"This isn't worth it," he told her. "This isn't me."

"We're a religious family," he added, "and it almost was like it was a sign from God that maybe he had other plans for me."

But Cindy Maestas, while saying she would support any decision he made, encouraged her son to keep trying. So did Spring, who recalls a number of lengthy phone conversations with C.J. in which he stressed the long-range importance and value of a college degree.

"Because more and more now, the standard is at least getting a college education," Spring said. "You've got to get that at least to open up some real (employment) opportunities in the future."

A former U.S. National Team member and 2008 Olympian, Spring knew how tempting it could be to Maestas to focus solely on gymnastics. He not only would be doing what he loved, but also be in line to be compensated through stipends from USA Gymnastics and monetary awards from the Team Hilton HHonors program. In addition, the OTC offered free room and board, and free transportation to meets. And there was always the possibility of bonus money from competitions should he turn pro.

"I mean, you could be looking at possibly $40,000 coming right out of high school to do nothing but what you've loved to do your entire life," Spring said.

Sticking with it

Maestas completely agreed with Spring that college was the right move. He understood the long-range benefits. Understood, too, the potentially fleeting nature of a career in gymnastics, where any move might be your last.

"This sport is so dangerous," Maestas said. "You blow out a leg, a shoulder, you've got nothing."

And Spring remained committed. When Maestas wasn't eligible for an entire year, the UI coach continued to reserve that promised scholarship for him.

No surprise there. In 2011, Maestas not only won a silver medal in still rings at the U.S. Championships but was a two-time bronze medalist at the Pan American Games.

"There's No. 1 recruits that are just above the 2, 3, 4 (recruits), and then there's No. 1 recruits that it's like you could get the 2, 3 and 4, and it still wouldn't be as good as getting that 1," Spring said. "And he was that guy, clearly."

But even Spring began to question withholding a full scholarship for a second year if Maestas continued to fall short on the ACT. Maestas said he understood.

"I totally respected that," he said.

As it turned out, that difficult decision never needed to be made. The sixth time was the charm for the determined test-taker, who's more than holding his own in the college classroom. During the fall semester, Maestas nearly maintained a B average.

"He's no academic All-American, but he's right there," Spring said. "He's just under a 3.0 (GPA), so he did quite well."

When it comes to collegiate gymnastics, the freshman already is an honors student. During the regular season, Maestas was a six-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week and a silver medalist in still rings at the 2012 U.S. Winter Cup. After winning the all-around and placing second in three individual event finals at the Big Ten Championships, Maestas swept the conference's Gymnast of the Year and Freshman of the Year awards.

With the Illini headed to the NCAA Championships this week, Spring is confident that Maestas' presence gives his program a strong shot at a national title this year and for years to come.

"C.J., he was worth the wait," Spring said. "He's (already) Olympic caliber as a freshman and will only get better."

For Maestas, it was worth the wait, too. Recently, he had a video conversation with his mother via Skype. When she asked what he was doing, and the response was homework, Cindy Maestas began to tear up with pride.

"Just (from) seeing the changes in me," C.J. said. "This university has not only taught me to be a better gymnast, but to be a better man overall."

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