Diab 'super hungry' to end Illinois career on high note

 

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CHAMPAIGN — Alex Diab’s Illinois gymnastics career has been one for the record books.

Literally. 

The Illini senior reached 11 career floor exercise titles, moving him into a tie for 10th with C.J. Maestas this season. It’s his 30 still rings titles, though, that stand out. No Illini has more. And no Illini has ever won four Big Ten rings titles — a record Diab established earlier this month in Iowa City, Iowa.

Diab will put the finishing touches on his Illinois career starting at 7 p.m. today, when the Illini compete in the Session II qualifier of the NCAA championships at State Farm Center. 

And Illinois coach Justin Spring can look back and say that, yes, this is exactly what he expected from Diab when he recruited him out of Glenbard West.

"That’s why we went after him hard," Spring said. "Alex has not disappointed at all."

How could he have?

Diab arrived at Illinois in 2016 having spent time on the U.S. Junior National Team in 2011-12 and 2014-15, and was the still rings champion at the 2014 Junior Olympic Nationals. He was coached by 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm and former Bulgarian national team coach Georgi Videnov.

Then there’s Diab’s gymnastics lineage. His dad, Mark, was a three-time NCAA finalist at Iowa State and won still rings national titles in 1985 and 1986.

"He’s been a huge role model of mine and a mentor to me," Diab said of his dad. "He’s seen me throughout my whole journey during gymnastics, from when I was young to now constantly talking to me about how gymnastics is going. He helps me be the best I can be."

Diab can catch his dad with another individual national title this weekend. The defending NCAA still rings champion won last year in Chicago by 0.067 points against Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer — the 2017 still rings champion.

"I have the awesome opportunity to have my last Illinois meet in State Farm competing for a national championship," Diab said. "I can’t be more excited about that. I’m going to leave it all out on the floor Saturday night and can’t wait to show off and have a great meet with my team."

Spring considers Diab the favorite to win the still rings title again this weekend. That’s even with Moldauer — a 15-time All-American — in the field. Moldauer has the higher score this season (15.250 to Diab’s 15.200), but Diab has the better season average (14.773 to Moldauer’s 14.735).

"If you ask (Diab), he’d probably tell you he’s (ticked) he didn’t win three national titles already," Spring said. "He’s super hungry."

Diab’s teammates have just as much faith in his chances for a second straight national championship. Diab’s confidence hammers that home.

"You watch Alex raise his hand, and you know 90 percent of the time he’s going to win the meet," Illinois freshman all-arounder Michael Fletcher said. "You have no doubt that he’s going to hit. You have no doubt that he is going to put up a flawless routine that’s going to be huge for the team. It’s very impressive and something I haven’t mastered yet on the event, but would love to someday."

That confidence is something Diab said has built up during his time at Illinois. Still rings was always his favorite event growing up, but it took competing at the collegiate level to fine tune his skills and mindset.

"A lot of it is just grinding away in the gym, practicing and trying to be perfect," Diab said. "A big part during the competition is a confident mindset going in and trusting all the work I’ve done in a gym is going to help me succeed in the competitions. 

"I just learned a lot from my older teammates and my coaches. Getting the experience of competing in college meets has increased my confidence and my mindset going into competitions."

Spring called Diab "world class" on still rings, but that’s not the only value he brings. The Glen Ellyn native and four-event performer (floor exercise, vault and high bar included) has also been what Spring called the "backbone" of the Illini program.

"I think in this day and age it’s hard to find someone who’s been as successful as he has in his concentration and be so down to earth and still so focused and still committed to all the same important, intangible things you would want from a walk-on athlete to a superstar," Spring said.

That’s most evident in Diab’s work ethic. Strength is a serious component in still rings, and Diab has set the bar for the Illini in the weight room.

"Genetically, some people are predisposed to being stronger than others, but at the end of the day strength is just ugly, hard work," Spring said. "He’s constantly the last guy to leave and always getting other guys to do more strength with him. We’ll give him what he needs to do, and then he’ll do another 30 percent.

"He’s a really smart, thoughtful worker, but has really toed the line for what it means to work in our gym. Doing that in the hardest sport in the world in gymnastics is another level."

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).