Illinois men’s gymnastics ready for ‘craziness’ of nationals

Eight years in a row the Illinois men’s gymnastics team has advanced to the “Super Six” team finals of the NCAA Championships. This year, the No. 4 Illini expect no less as they travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the weekend competition.

The crowd expectations are different than last year, though, when Illinois entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in the country.

Illinois head coach Justin Spring said despite the rankings, the Illini are better off than the year before mentally and physically.

“We’re in a good place, now it’s just playing the mental game,” Spring said. “It’s anyone’s game in this sport. You have eight super teams that are very talented. It could be any of those teams any year, and Illinois has been in that position the last eight years.”

Spring said the emotions at nationals are crazier than during any other meet because it’s some gymnasts’ last time competing, making the pressure an all-time high.

“Some guys here have been training, they know they’re not gonna make an Olympic team,” he said. “This is their Olympics, this is their big moment.”

Spring said with all the high energy and emotions conflicting with any routine, anything can happen — from uncharacteristic falls to sudden injuries to simply nerves getting the better of someone.

That unpredictability is why Spring said that although Illinois’ start values are not as high as No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Stanford, there still is a chance at the national title.

“This team has done an amazing job at maximizing scores and consistently hitting,” Spring said. “We’re ‘that team.’ We have a little bit more benefit in the regard that our routines are slightly easier, which lends itself to a better performance in a stressful situation.”

The Illini have already faced Oklahoma and Stanford this season, giving them an idea of what to expect.

“It gave us more confidence and helped us see what areas we need to capitalize on,” senior Chad Wiest said.

Spring also said the Illini must capitalize on their pommel horse routines, the one event in which they are ranked No. 1.

He added that the other main factor to capitalize on is consistency; it will be necessary for Illinois to do so with three days of competition. The top three teams and top three all-around competitors not on one of the qualifying teams, along with the top three individuals on each event not already qualified on a team or as an all-around competitor, advance from the two pre-qualifying sessions to Friday’s finals session. The national champion is determined Friday.

“Everyone has to hit on the same night, two nights in a row. It’s crazy,” Spring said.

Crazy things happen at the national championships, and the meet could go in any direction, assistant coach Luke Stannard said.

“If we can carry the positive mental energy into nationals, I think it’s not out of the question that we can come out with a championship,” Stannard said. “If we’re gonna upset OU and Stanford we’re going to have to be perfect.”