Return of Sender

CHAMPAIGN — On Aug. 15, 2009, David Sender packed all of his belongings into a car and began the drive from northern California to Champaign.

Sender was accompanied by his father Ira, his dog Scout, his hamster Jake, and an unnamed but remarkably resilient goldfish who now is 13 years old.

Given the company on this two-time-zone trek, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Stanford University graduate was days away from entering the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine.

On this day, Sender not only was leaving behind his apartment in Redwood City. The 2008 U.S. all-around champion also was putting his much-decorated gymnastics career in the rearview mirror.

"It was definitely one of the tougher decisions I've ever had to make," Sender recalled this week. "Do I pursue my gymnastics dream (of competing in the Olympics) for the next three years or do I get on with my life, which I also had big goals for?

"I guess I just had to make peace that I had accomplished what I could in gymnastics and move on to vet school."

***

Three years later, David Sender's Olympic dream once again is alive.

On Thursday, the 12-time U.S. Senior National Team member will join 14 other men on the opening day of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. At stake is a spot on the five-member men's team that will compete in the London Games.

How Sender went from seemingly content gymnastics retiree to on-the-cusp first-time Olympian speaks to the enduring grip the sport still holds on the UI volunteer assistant coach.

"This last year I felt the pull coming back into the sport," Sender said. "I needed to try one more time."

As Illini head coach Justin Spring and others in his program will tell you, Sender's return to competitive gymnastics comes as no surprise, even though the three-time U.S. vault champion had persistently insisted he was done — even as he continued to work out periodically at the Illini's training room on the top floor of Kenney Gym.

"We would always kind of dog him about 'You're so coming back and training. You're totally training for 2012,' " Spring said.

To any doubters, Sender always explained the intention of his workouts was no different than the neighbor or classmate who routinely goes to a health club to get — or to stay — in shape. Some folks like to run the treadmill or lift weights.

Sender enjoys defying gravity and landing squarely on his feet.

"I can truly honestly say I had no intention of coming back," he said. "I was going to (Kenney Gym) for my own entertainment. I would get bored going to the gym and lifting heavy objects. There's not a whole lot else in life that really gives you the thrill that you can get from gymnastics — turning your body around in weird ways; trying things that literally scare you, things that you've never tried before that you're really risking something by doing it.

"There's really nowhere else you can get that, so I still like to go into the gym."

As the months and even years passed, Sender wore down even a skeptical Spring.

"He was adamant, 'I'm not (returning),' " the Illini coach said. " 'I'm just bored and keeping doing what I'm used to doing.'

"And I believed him after a while. It was crazy to me that he was doing as much gymnastics as he was, but I think that he was genuine and really felt that he wasn't going to come back."

***

Although Sender called it a career after winning a pair of silver medals at the 2009 Visa U.S. Championships, he continued to closely follow the sport at its highest levels in this country. In fact, at the 2011 national championships, Sender was the athlete representative on the committee that selected the next U.S. Senior National Team.

As Sender watched the meet unfold, he came to the conclusion he still could be competitive at this level. Concluded that, one year from the next Olympics, he realistically would be in the mix to achieve the most meaningful accomplishment that had eluded him throughout his career: to become an Olympian.

"Basically, I felt like I could still fit in to the Olympic team, or at least be on the national team at the level of gymnastics they were doing," Sender said. "So that kind of got me thinking, kind of re-sparked some stuff that I didn't quite finish in '08.

"I figured ... if I thought that I had any chance at all of making the team, even if it was a tiny chance, then I kind of owed to myself to see if I could do it."

For Sender, the 2008 Olympic Team Trials are a cruel memory. The Arlington Heights native entered that meet seemingly at the top of his game. At the Visa Championships earlier in the year, Sender won the U.S. all-around title as well as the vault crown. With bronze medals, too, in floor exercise and high bar, he was just the kind of high-end versatile performer so vital to any country's hopes of taking home a team medal.

But Sender never even made it onto the competition floor after suffering an ankle sprain during a freak training mishap one day before the start of the Trials. It happened as Sender descended from an awkward release of the high bar, his right ankle rolling as his foot landed halfway off the mat.

"It was literally one of the last (training) turns I would have taken that day," he said. "It's about as bad a timing as it gets."

Sender petitioned the selection committee to take his situation into account when picking the Olympic team, but his appeal was turned down. He wasn't surprised.

"Honestly, the other guys that had competed at Trials, they had really good performances," Sender said.

Once again, he was a spectator that August as a U.S. team that included Spring went on to win the bronze medal at the Beijing Games.

***

Sender was back at it in 2009, the ill-timed ankle injury a regrettable memory but no long-lasting impediment. That year, at the U.S. Winter Cup, he won two gold medals. Months later at the Visa Championships, Sender added two silvers to his medals collection. A trip with the U.S. team to that year's World Championships was next on his itinerary. Or so everyone assumed.

"I would say David was at his best in 2009," Spring said, "just before he said I'm done. And people couldn't believe it. It was like blowing everyone's mind ... after he looked as good as he did and literally just hung up his grips."

Sender did so after reaching a fork in his life. One path led to the UI College of Veterinary Medicine. The other pointed to the well-trodden road of gymnastics. Doing both, particularly given the travel demands of a U.S. National Team member, wasn't a reasonable option.

"It basically came down to having to choose between those two humongous parts of my life," Sender said, "and since I'd gotten accepted to school it's kind of tough to say no to that because your chances of getting in again are rather small.

"I guess I just had to make peace that I accomplished what I could in gymnastics and just move on to veterinary school."

***

This fall, Sender will be a student once more. Last September, after announcing he was returning to gymnastics, Sender dropped out of the UI to focus on his training for one final shot at the Olympics.

What amounted to a one-year sabbatical from his studies was done with the approval of UI veterinary college administrators.

"For me, I can pretty strongly say (it was) the right decision, and even if I get nothing more than closure from this, I figure it's worth that," Sender said.

That closure, of course, will be to the question of whether he is good enough to be an Olympian. So far, so good. Despite a two-year break from training, followed by a narrow nine-month window to prepare for the 2012 Visa Championships, Sender was good enough to be among the 15 men selected for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

Spring, himself a former world-class gymnast who knows what it takes, marvels at Sender's comeback.

"Gymnastics is not like basketball or something where you can take some time off and come right back in like it's no big deal," the three-time U.S. event champion said. "He kept his body in decent shape, but he was by no means in Olympic shape any more. And to kind of turn that back on is really incredible. ... He's really focused and persistent on a whole other level that I've never seen before."

Spring, who serves as Sender's personal coach, and Sender himself readily admit the Olympic hopeful was not at his best at the Visa Championships. Besides placing 11th in the all-around, Sender was no higher than fifth in any event.

"I would say he's capable of much better, and that's the tone we've taken (in practice)," Spring said. "He's got to have a much better level of refinement. He's got the ability to do it. He's just got to show it."

There are other hurdles to clear. In 2008, teams that qualified for the Olympics were comprised of six members. The sport's international governing body has since reduced the size of qualifying teams to five athletes. For Sender, it will be tougher to make it to London than it was for Spring to reach Beijing.

Furthermore, U.S. men's gymnastics is building a well-deserved reputation among the world's elite. The American men won team medals at each of the last two Olympics, and Sender will compete this week against every member of the 2011 U.S. World Championships team that earned a bronze.

"We're not just any team off the block," Spring said. "This is a very, very talented team internationally. ... He needs to bring his best because the talent level in the United States has gone through the roof."

That's Sender's intention, but however things turn out this week, this veterinarian-to-be finally will be able to answer the question: Am I good enough to be an Olympian? It's why Sender came back to gymnastics. Whatever the answer, he insists it's a one-time-only comeback.

"I am undeniably done after this," Sender said. "It's all about the Olympics for me. I'm not looking for anything else. I'm hoping to make the team, but more than anything I want to make sure there are no regrets and no looking back saying 'What if ...?'

"I want to leave without any doubts in my head."

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