Illini of the Week: Daniel Ribeiro

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Daniel Ribeiro is very good on the pommel horse. In fact, he’s world class. It’s his best event, and the No. 3 ranking currently occupied by the Illinois men’s gymnastics team is in no small part due to the consistently outstanding scores the junior posts week after week.

While he’s proud of his excellence on the apparatus, there’s one thing Ribeiro wants to avoid: being labeled a specialist.

Specialists are useful in gymnastics. They excel where others falter, buoying the team’s score in their event and covering the mistakes of their teammates. But specialists don’t have a place on the Olympic team, where gymnasts are expected to perform at high levels on multiple events.

“I used to be called a specialist because I only did pommel horse. And I hated that,” Ribeiro said.

He may not have liked it, but until recently it was true. He began the season in only two rotations: the pommel horse and the floor exercise. He was great on the pommel horse, as last year’s NCAA championship can attest. But he was still a specialist.

Two weeks ago, Ribeiro, a junior, began working on vault, an event he hadn’t competed in since high school. The goal? To add another event to his repertoire. He chose a handspring double front, one of two most challenging vaults in the NCAA, which carries a hefty 16.6 start value.

“It’s a very difficult, scary vault,” associate head coach Justin Spring said. “It’s basically a triple front flip off the vault, it’s pretty crazy.”

So scary that Spring had to spend 10 minutes in a practice convincing him to even try it on the ground.

“I got into it with him,” Spring recalled. “He threw every excuse he could find, but I told him no more excuses. I said ‘Dan, it’s time.’ And he finally suited up and the whole team was behind him, and he flipped one right to his back. Not even close.”

The next several practices would be spent attempting the trick repeatedly, usually with the same unfortunate results. Even in warm ups before the Penn State meet Saturday, Ribeiro’s only vault ended with him on the ground.

It looked as if he had a considerable way to go before he could break into the lineup.

Later in that meet though, opportunity came knocking when senior Luke Stannard was unable to compete due to illness. Spring turned to Ribeiro and gave him the chance to stand in.

“I’m a really competitive person,” Ribeiro said. “I was like, ‘Absolutely. Give me a shot.’”

He rewarded Spring’s vote of confidence with the vault of his life.

Ribeiro stuck his routine on the way to posting the second-highest score in school history, a 16.150. On top of that, it was the fourth-highest vault score posted by any gymnast in the NCAA this season. It easily captured individual honors for the meet.

“It was unbelievable,” Spring said. “It was about the last thing I thought he was going to do.”

It was probably the last thing Ribeiro expected, too, as Saturday was the first time he’d ever landed it so perfectly in his life.

“I was freaking out, I was nervous, but in the end I was able to stick it and it was pretty incredible,” Ribeiro said.

Along with his stellar performance on the vault, Ribeiro provided the team a 15.800 on the pommel horse. That was good enough to win him the individual title for the meet, but it was also the single-highest score posted by any NCAA gymnast this season and pushed him to No. 1 in the individual rankings on the pommel horse.

“His value to this team is irreplaceable because of how amazing he is on pommel horse,” Spring said. “That’s usually an event people struggle with.”

As to why he’s so good, Ribeiro believes he got a leg up on his competition in his youth, when fear kept him grounded.

“I was actually kind of scared of the other events, like the high bar and stuff, so I did more pommel horse,” Ribeiro said. “I kind of got that advantage over everybody else. I just worked at it more.”

He’s no longer afraid, and he’s not happy just being great on pommel horse.

If Ribeiro wants to achieve his bigger goals and chase his wildest dreams, it’s going to take more than that.

“Now that I do three events, it’s given me a chance to possibly do bigger things,” Ribeiro said. “Possibly looking at a World Championships or an Olympic Games. Maybe I can do it.”