Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Yoshi Hayasaki

Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Yoshi Hayasaki

Happy 72nd birthday to longtime Illinois gymnastics coach and USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer Yoshi Hayasaki.

Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1947, he journeyed to America in 1965. The experiences he endured were captured by his daughter, Erika Hayasaki, in a 2015 story she wrote for Zócalo Public Square. The former News-Gazette intern, now associate professor of literary journalism at the University of California-Irvine, titled her feature "Somersaulting Into America."

Seventeen-year-old Yoshi was invited to America in a letter from University of Washington professor and head gymnastics coach Eric Hughes. While on sabbatical in Japan, Hughes had scouted talent and spotted the 5-foot-3 Osaka city champion. If Yoshi could earn admittance to UW, the letter stated, he would be guaranteed a scholarship and could compete on the Huskies team.

Hayasaki's parents, Miyo and Shoichi, knew little about the United States except for the bombs it had rained on their city during World War II, reducing their home to ashes.

"Still," wrote Erika, "the thought of America electrified my dad."

Said Yoshi, "I saw my future. It was like a blueprint."

The Hayasaki family couldn't afford to send their son to his new world on an airplane, so they instead sought out a cargo ship.

"On July 30, 1965," Erika wrote, "shortly after graduating from high school, my father boarded the S.S. Idaho, which was transporting logs from Yokohama to Longview Washington. The trip cost $300."

Yoshi's sleeping quarters were in the bowels of the ship, just inches from where the waves of the Pacific Ocean slammed incessantly. He was seasick for most of the 12-day voyage.

Upon reaching the U.S. mainland, Yoshi enrolled as a foreign exchange student at a high school in Issaquah, Wash., to learn English and prepare for his college acceptance tests. At night, he stood in front of a mirror, practicing English words. It took three tries to pass the exam, but he finally was able to enroll at Washington.

Despite suffering an Achilles injury early on in his collegiate career, Hayasaki's perseverance eventually paid dividends, winning NCAA all-around titles in both 1970 and '71.

A second Achilles tear ultimately ended his career as an athlete, so he now had the difficult decision about whether to return to his roots in Japan. Hayasaki's future came into focus in 1973 when Illinois athletic director Cecil Coleman offered him the opportunity to become head coach of the Illini.

It proved to be a wise choice. Recruiting internationally, Hayasaki's program began its upward surge.

In 1981, bolstered by Brazilians Gilberto Albuquerque and Gilmarico Sanches, and Finland's Kari Samstein, the Illini won their first Big Ten title in 21 years. Eight years later, Hayasaki's Illini captured the NCAA crown.

He retired from the U of I in 2009 and today teaches the sport at his private gym in Champaign, the Hayasaki Gymnastics Center.

Illini Birthdays

Today: Lenny Willis, administrator (65)

Monday: Megan Cooney, volleyball (19)

Tuesday: Mike Suarez, football (46)

Wednesday: Jayna Fittipaldo, soccer (19)

Thursday: Aspen Burkett-Miles, track & field

Friday: Bob Naponic, football (71)

Saturday: Hope Breslin, soccer (19)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter @IlliniLegends and @B1GLLL. His website is