What happens in Vegas could lead gymnasts to country’s elite

By Kyle Diller

The Illinois men’s gymnastic team’s season will take a new twist Thursday as it takes a break from team competition and pursues individual glory at the 2009 Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas.

Nine Illini gymnasts will be showcased at one of the most prestigious gymnastic events of the year when they all vie for a spot on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.

“This isn’t really a college event, it’s individual. It’s the best gymnasts in the country,” senior Chris Lung said. “The goal is just to compete well and to show that you belong to that select group of people.”

The two-day event will feature gymnasts from all over the country trying to grab one of the seven open spots in the 15-gymnast U.S. Men’s Senior National Team roster.

Top Illinois gymnasts will be inspired by assistant coach Justin Spring, who qualified for the senior national team in 2005 while he was a junior at the University. Spring went on to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“I see the talent in quite a few and then there is a select few that I see the ability to make the national team,” Spring said. “It’s the same situation that I made my first senior national team spot. It’s after an Olympic year, there are a lot of guys that are calling it quits and retiring. Spots are opening up and that was when I capitalized and was able to make a national team spot. We’ve got a few guys that have a pretty good opportunity to do the same thing.”

The Illini squad will include All-American and defending NCAA high bar champion Paul Ruggeri. Having already reached the summit of the collegiate level last season, Ruggeri will try to prove that he is the best in the country on the high bar at the Las Vegas Sports Center.

Along with Ruggeri, sophomore Daniel Ribeiro, an All-American and a Big Ten pommel horse champion, and newcomer Austin Phillips, who has only competed in two collegiate meets in his career, are a pair to keep an eye on.

“I’m not going to lie. I’m a tad bit nervous,” Phillips said. “I think I’ll do good. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I know I’ll be able to put it together and do it. I’ve been working hard, so I should be alright.”

Although there is no team competition, the gymnasts will have each other for support as they compete in what could be one of the most prominent meets of their careers. This could be the stepping stone for many of the Orange and Blue gymnasts to work their way onto the 2012 Olympic team.

“Last year we saw Ruggeri become high bar champion. Once you become a champion in the event in the NCAA Championships, already you have the opportunity to compete against the best USA gymnasts,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I think he is certainly one of the gymnasts that will possibly move into that level of competition, as well as Danny Ribeiro, who won the Pommel Horse in the Big Ten Championships. Others have that kind of a quality as well.”