Alex Diab

Alex Diab, center, poses with coach Justin Spring and Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman after the 2019 NCAA Championships. Now, Diab is trying to join Spring as an Olympian.

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A month ago, Illinois men’s gymnastics coach Justin Spring figured Alex Diab was a long shot to make the U.S. Olympic team.

“Going into the U.S. Championships, I would have said Alex’s chances for making the Olympic team were like 2 percent,” Spring said. “Almost nothing.”

Not a knock on Diab. It was simply a numbers game that seemed to work against the former Illini standout.

Diab wasn’t competing in the all-around and the team was limited to four qualifiers.

“It was just very unlikely,” Spring said.

Happy to report, Spring has revised his assessment.

In a good way.

Diab put himself in contention by winning the still rings at the U.S. Championships. His score of 14.950 would have been good enough to medal at the previous World Championships and automatically put him on the national team and gained him a spot in the U.S. Olympic trials.

“That was a big deal,” Spring said.

There is more. The U.S. team earned a bonus qualifier thanks to its finish at the recent Pan American Championships in Brazil.

“Man, we’re looking pretty good all of the sudden,” Spring said. “Alex is the only specialist who has put up a number that would have placed him in medal contention amongst the world field.”

One of the other top specialists, Eddie Penev, who would have been a contender, has been knocked out by a knee injury.

“It’s devastating and I feel for the kid,” Spring said. “But I’m also looking at my guy and who he has to beat and what increases his chances.”

Diab, a two-time NCAA champion in the still rings, is competing in his specialty during this week’s U.S. trials, which begin Thursday night in St. Louis.

The 24-year-old Hinsdale native will attempt to secure his spot for the Summer Games in Tokyo during the next three days at The Dome at America’s Center. It’s the same venue Illinois played North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA tournament title game.

On Thursday, the competition starts at 6:30 p.m. and can be seen on NBC Sports Network. On Saturday, the event moves to NBC at 4 p.m.

Plenty of roomBecause of COVID-19, the U.S. is sending two full gymnastics teams to Tokyo. That’s 10 spots to fill.

“I think Alex has a great shot at being one of the 10,” Spring said. “Again, the fact that no one else has hit that mark (his rings score at the U.S. Championships), data doesn’t lie.

“I think he is in a great position, maybe 50, 75 percent chance of making this team. I don’t even want to tell him those odds.”

Spring’s advice is more generic: Take advantage of the opportunity and do your job on the rings.

“It would be so epic for him,” Spring said.

Of course, Spring knows the feeling of landing a spot on Team USA. A star at Illinois, he was part of the bronze medalist U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Their timelines are similar. Spring graduated from Illinois in 2006 and made the team two years later. Diab is on the same track, finishing school in 2019 after winning two NCAA titles in the rings.

“I’m just so happy for Alex,” Spring said. “I think there are a lot of coaches who dream to develop athletes to put them on the Olympic floor. I did it as an athlete. I don’t really care if I go. I want to see Alex realize his dream. It’s just surreal for him.”

Taking advantageThe global pandemic shoved the Tokyo Games back a year. Originally, the event was scheduled for 2020.

“This is a recurring thing for a lot of guys: I think COVID helped Alex,” Spring said.

Please explain.

“It bought him an extra year to focus and develop,” Spring said. “He’s been incredible. He just worked himself silly getting stronger.

“There were three other guys nipping at his heels, trying to be the best ring guy in our country. Alex has established himself as the undeniable ring guy in the country and now trying to establish himself as one of the best in the world. That’s from hard work.”

Diab improved his strength and upgraded his dismount.

If he makes the Olympic team, Diab will be in much better shape than his coach was back in 2008.

Spring was a wreck.

“My Olympic trials experience was absolutely miserable,” Spring said. “’07, I tore my ACL on national TV on vault, then had a year to come back. In that comeback, I mangled my ankle again and competed at the Olympics with a busted ankle.”

And how is Diab physically?

“He’s healthy. He looks fantastic,” Spring said. “He is in the peak of his shape at the perfect time.”

Diab went to St. Louis on Monday. Spring will be on the floor for the trials.

“I will see him at the meet,” Spring said. “I will be the loudest guy.”

Spring won’t be filling Diab’s head with coachspeak.

“The last thing you want to do is put a pedestal on how important this meet is,” Spring said. “You want to keep his mind focused on business as usual. Don’t do anything different or special.”

Former Illinois head coach Don Osborn is Diab’s personal coach. He is part of Team Diab in St. Louis.

If Diab makes the U.S. team, he will return to train in Champaign-Urbana before leaving for Tokyo.

Where he’ll continue his chase of rings in front of the Olympic rings. How cool.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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