U of I flying high

By Lindsey Woods

Age makes no difference to the gymnasts on the No. 2–ranked University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gymnastics team. On Feb. 4, the last day of the 2012 U.S. Winter Cup Challenge, the Fighting Illini qualified one redshirt senior and one true freshman to the U.S. National Team.

Paul Ruggeri, the redshirt senior, and C.J. Maestas, the freshman, have both qualified for the national team before, but this victory is different. With the 2012 London Olympics less than six months away, being named to the team has much bigger implications.

“Especially with this being the Olympic year, the most important part of the selection process is just maintaining your national team status,” Ruggeri said.

The two Illini share their titles with volunteer Assistant Coach David Sender, who earned an automatic spot on the team based on points accumulated in the national team’s point system. Ruggeri qualified the same way.

The national team’s committee selected Maestas after his all-around 3rd place finish at the Winter Cup Challenge. He also earned a silver medal on the rings and a 10th place finish on both the floor and parallel bars.

“It’s awesome to renew my spot on the national team again and be a part of the elite eight,” Maestas said. “There’s some amazing athletes in this country, and it’s awesome to know that I’m a part of that top–notch group.”

Ruggeri nabbed 7th place overall in the Winter Cup, finishing 4th on vault and high bar and winning a bronze medal on the floor.

Head Coach Justin Spring, a former eight-time national team member and bronze medal winner for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said the two men complement each other well in their gymnastics, which creates the exciting prospect of the two making the Olympic team together.

Spring went on to say that Maestas’ strengths lie on the pommel horse and the rings, adding that those are Ruggeri’s two weakest events. Conversely, he noted Ruggeri’s international success on the floor and strength on the bar and parallel bars.

The two athletes are not only complementary competitors, but they also help each other cope with the pressures of competition, according to Ruggeri.

“We’re capable of keeping each other’s heads on straight,” he said. “I like to think that, at least. He’s the better competitor, though.”

That kind of team attitude, along with being recruited by a top-notch coaching staff, made his decision to attend U of I a no-brainer, Maestas said.

“I know that this place was where I needed to be,” he said. “I have this connection with the guys, just from talking on my recruiting trip. I felt at home, comfortable. I am far away from home [Corrales, N.M.], so it’s awesome to know that these guys are my family now.”

Maestas also said having a coach who recently medaled in the Olympics was a factor. He said Spring’s experiences will be helpful to the men’s training leading up to the Olympic trials in late June and early July. Spring warned that he views using his training as a “slippery slope” and uses it cautiously when coaching.

“Any good coach will tell you that every athlete is different,” he said. “I certainly use my experiences in how I approach them, but also know them to be very different individuals in what makes them tick.”

Both Ruggeri and Maestas see themselves on Team USA in London, and both expressed awe at being so close to making their childhood dreams a reality.

“I can taste it,” Maestas said. “It’s something that I’ve wanted for such a long time that I’d be so disappointed in myself if I were to get so far in my career to just give up or settle for second best.”