CHAMPAIGN — The center of the collegiate men's gymnastics world this weekend was State Farm Center, and Illinois coach Justin Spring wasn't taking it for granted. There's inherent strength in the sport when the national championships play out with the country's best all in one arena.
Men's gymnastics as a sport, though, is struggling. The number of programs that carry the sport will drop to 15 nationwide next season when Illinois-Chicago shutters its program.
"It's been just getting crushed for the last 35 years dropping program after program, and this year is no different," Spring said. "Gymnastics is kind of that weird, rare, unique Olympic sport that has kind of been able to stick around, but for how long I don't know. That's the scary undertone of why I think it's really special to host this event and get exposure for the community and have our athletic director see that we do have a really niche following but they're very passionate about the sport.
"There's an Olympian on the floor this weekend for sure, whether it's (Oklahoma's Yul Moldauer) or someone from my program. I just think that's really cool that college athletic programs are feeder programs for the national team and World and Olympic teams."
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Spring has some ideas on what men's gymnastics might need to stick around in college athletics. Reverting back to a scoring system that maxes out at a perfect 10 is one — something women's gymnastics hasn't abandoned.
"Scores range from a good hit like a 9.9 to a 9.975," Spring said. "Everyone is right there, and it's seemingly easy to follow. Internally it's just as complicated, but at least you have that 10.0 push and fight."
Spring has also proposed a head-to-head system where one athlete competes on a single event, then his competitor gets a turn and whoever has the high score gets a point for their team.
"I think we're also just too long and lengthy," Spring said after Friday's NCAA qualifier sessions ran just shy of three hours. "We just need to streamline. We need to be the opposite of what we are, which I would say is cumbersome from a TV and spectator standpoint. There's about 100,000 different ways you could do that, and we just haven't over the years. It's time to start making some changes in my opinion to fit more of a TV model."
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That TV model might come in adapting an event in the vein of Ninja Warrior. That's one of Spring's ideas that he admits makes him wonder how much the sport "looks like gymnastics after that point."
"I think that Ninja Warrior has done a lot of things with essentially the baseline of gymnastics," he said. "It's become a viral TV show and gyms have popped up around the country."
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Until that point, men's gymnastics is still a draw for top athletes — particularly at Illinois. Take Hamish Carter. The West Midlands, United Kingdom, native was a late addition to the Illini roster having only been on campus since January.
Illinois was recommended to Carter in late 2018 by his former coach Nick Blanton, who competed collegiately at James Madison in the early 2000s, knows Spring and has coached in both the United Kingdom and now Canada. Carter only began looking at college programs in earnest in November, visited Illinois in December and then arrived in Champaign a month later.
"I haven't looked back after making my decision to come here," said Carter, who won the Big Ten high bar title earlier this month. "I've got the best coaches around. I've got some great teammates. Clay (Mason) Stephens, a close friend of mine before I moved to Illinois, he was a big influencing factor in me coming. We both came from elite programs outside of America. To have him here as well greatly influenced my decision."
Three months after Carter arrived at Illinois, he was the Big Ten high bar champion.
"That gives me a lot of confidence moving forward," Carter said. "Hopefully come next Big Tens, next year, I'll be defending that title. ... I've got all the things I need to keep improving and become one of the best high bar workers in the NCAA but also taking that into the international stage going back home and competing for Great Britain."
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Carter is one of several standout freshman on the Illinois roster, with classmate Michael Fletcher earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors — a first for the Illini since Bobby Baker took the honor in 2015.
Fletcher won just two individual event titles this season — both coming in the first meet of his career — but his steady performance all season turned him into the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Nashua, N.H., native finished third in the all-around at the Big Ten championships.
"I think I just wanted to get through this season healthy and as good as I possibly can," Fletcher said. "I knew if I did that, I'd be able to have a good season. It's more of a do what you need to do and the outcome will come and not necessarily setting specific goals."
Stephens, a native Australian, also won four individual event titles this year before a season-ending injury last month."He could have won three events at Big Tens in his first year competing for us," Spring said.
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Freshmen as difference makers isn't exactly new for Spring. Illini senior Alex Diab got his career going with the first of four Big Ten still rings titles as a freshman. Recent grad Chandler Eggleston was a Big Ten vault champion and two-time All-American in his first season with the Illini. Two of the more decorated Illini gymnasts of the last decade — Paul Ruggeri and C.J. Maestas — won NCAA titles in high bar and still rings, respectively, as freshmen.
Stacking talent each and every recruiting class is imperative.
"If we don't, we're not going to be competitive," Spring said. "We've got to keep bringing in those young guys that have an immediate impact right away.
"We've got some guys that came in as freshmen that have blossomed and they're going to be All-Americans their junior and senior year, and I'm almost more proud of those stories. But you also need those world class freshmen that can come in. ... You've got to find those guys. We spend a crazy amount of time recruiting them and selling them on our commitment and what we can provide them here at Illinois."
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Landing freshmen like Fletcher and Carter that can contribute right away isn't easy. Spring said each class typically has just five or six blue chip recruits. Young gymnasts who can change a program immediately are few and far between.
"There's only so many of those, and if you can get one you can build a program off of them," Spring said.
Projecting the impact a young gymnast can have is even trickier. Spring said he didn't hit his peak as a gymnast until after he had graduated from Illinois, which worked out well in his Olympic career that immediately followed his time with the Illini as an athlete.
Men's gymnastics recruiting is different from most every other sport.
"There's a scale for everything, but most guys are entering their prime in their 20s," Spring said. "The idea of recruiting a 14-year-old or 15-year-old would be asinine."
Spring said he even hesitates with offering a full scholarship to high school seniors. Gymnastics is not a head count sport and has 6.3 scholarships to split among the entire team.
"You just quite don't know what he's going to amount to, and a lot of times that's physically but often times mentally how's he going to handle competing for a team," Spring said. "We spend a great deal of time scouting these guys, but we're not as early in the process as some of these other sports because the system hasn't pushed that way for fear that you get stuck with a guy that really isn't going to amount to anything you thought he could. I think that exists in our sport maybe more than most others. We're late and late by design."