When the University of Illinois athletic department selects its Men’s Newcomer of the Year for the 2013-14 academic year, surely Chandler Eggleston will receive serious consideration. Beginning in mid-January, the native of Jamestown, N.C., won five consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards in men’s gymnastics. It’s the longest Big Ten award streak in program history. The honors are no surprise, considering that Eggleston has racked up nine individual event titles this season, second on his team to three-time All-American and 2012 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year C.J. Maestas. Staff writer JEFF HUTH sat down with Eggleston recently at the team’s training base in Kenney Gym to talk about his sport, life as a first-year college student and next weekend’s Big Ten Championships.
How did you first get involved in gymnastics?
A friend had a birthday party at a gymnastics club in North Carolina. I guess I liked it so much that my parents decided to put me in a class. I was 8 years old when I started.
For you, what’s the toughest aspect of your sport?
The toughest aspect would probably be competing. It’s nerve-racking. I keep it together, but competing is probably the toughest part, for me at least.
What’s the most enjoyable part of gymnastics?
I’d say learning new skills and, I guess, showing them off to everyone.
Your coach, Justin Spring, said you are a laid-back guy, definitely not a Type A personality. Conversely, he said you also can exhibit a lot of passion at times. He used the word contradictory. Is that an accurate description?
I guess you could say that because I don’t like to be uptight about my gymnastics but I also do like to show that I care about everything I do in here.
We understand you are very much into social media. Are you the most active on your team?
I’d like to say so. It was a lot more coming into the University of Illinois because just in high school I had a lot more time for stuff like that. But I still think so. Got a bunch of followers on Instagram and Twitter. (I post) mostly gymnastics pictures now. Twitter, whatever comes to mind.
Do you have a lot of followers?
I do. I’ve gotten a bunch since I came here to the university. I guess more people are following me. On Instagram, I probably have like a thousand three hundred something. A few of my teammates are trying to get as many as you can, I guess.
Did you ever post a Twitter message you wish you could have back and, if so, what was it?
I can’t think of one right off the top of my head. Nothing recently. You definitely have to watch that stuff more.
Not only is this your first year of college, which can be challenging enough, but you are also far from home. What has that been like?
Moving out here to Illinois from North Carolina’s been a big change. Definitely a lot more independent, and I try to be more responsible now since I don’t have my parents looking after me and watching everything I do, I guess getting used to everything. The weather is a lot different. I had to get some more winter clothes. It’s fun so far, though.
Lucky you, your first year in Champaign-Urbana also happens to coincide with the sixth-snowiest winter on record as well as long stretches of brutal cold. For a North Carolina native, what’s that been like?
I don’t think I’ve ever been in temperatures below freezing that long, and the wind chill’s ridiculous. It took some getting used to. I had to bundle up like I’d never done before. I still didn’t get winter boots. I should have, I know. Next year I definitely will. I’d never seen that much snow before back home.
Your biography in the team media guide indicates you plan to attend medical school after you graduate. However, I understand that plan might have changed. Bring us up to date.
Going along with my first year (and) taking a bunch of kinesiology classes, it may have persuaded what I wanted to do. But I guess for the most part I’m still on that same track. Something along the lines of physical therapy and when I finish go on to medical school.
After Justin Spring returned from the 2008 Olympics, where he competed for a bronze medal-winning U.S. team, he recalls that your paths crossed in Las Vegas during separate gymnastics meets. You asked Justin if you could have your picture taken with him. Of course, he said yes. In fact, he would love to have a copy of that photo if you still have it. What is your memory of that encounter?
One of my friends I was there with, after the competition was over he wanted to go around and take some pictures of the Olympians and the really good college gymnasts. So we ended up taking a picture with Justin, and I think the next year I began to get recruited by this university and him. So I thought that was really cool.
Do you still have the picture?
I do still have the picture. It’s on my phone. I think I might have actually put it up on Instagram a while ago. Probably going to keep that one.
You arrived at the UI with an impressive résumé in gymnastics, including multiple national titles at the junior level. Surely you had many scholarship offers. Why did you choose Illinois?
I came out here on a recruit trip in September of my senior year. I met everybody — the team, the coaches, teachers, advisers. Everybody was just on the same page and it was just like a family. I didn’t really feel that as much as I did here at any other place that I visited.
What other schools did you visit?
Stanford and Michigan and Oklahoma and Minnesota. We’re allowed five (official visits) so I took all five. They’re all great at gymnastics, but I just felt more at home at the University of Illinois.
Give us your best Justin Spring story so far?
We have a blooper reel (from digitally-recorded workouts). Just like when someone falls on a skill and it’s funny. Or someone walking around the gym and trips. We record it on the screens and put it on the iPad. I’m pretty sure Justin’s on there, just like walking or tripping. That’s just the funniest stuff.
You’re approaching your first Big Ten Championships, which will begin Friday at Lincoln, Neb. You currently rank second nationally in the vault and third in floor exercise — with one Big Ten gymnast ahead of you in each case. Based on how you’ve performed up to this point, what are your expectations for yourself?
With floor and vault being my best two events, I want to go out and take some titles back from that competition. That would be great. But top three, just being a freshman, that’s great as well.