Gymnasts head to Pan Am Games

In the midst of 6,000 athletes overtaking Guadalajara, Mexico, for the 2011 Pan American Games, one can find three Illinois gymnasts and even their coach.

Seniors Paul Ruggeri and Tyler Mizoguchi and freshman C.J. Maestas represent three of six Americans during the international competition Oct. 24-28, and Illinois head coach Justin Spring is leading the American squad.

“This is going to be an amazing experience,” Ruggeri said. “The best international meet I’ve ever had is when Justin came with me as a coach. And now, having him and two teammates, that’s just unreal.”

The trio is joined by three other American gymnasts — Donothan Bailey, Sho Nakamori and Brandon Wynn — each of whom the Illinois athletes know from competition throughout the year. Mizoguchi was originally an alternate but moved up to the team to replace injured Glen Ishino.

Bailey spent a week training at Illinois because so many competitors were in the same place. Spring could not think of a time when so many athletes from one school were on the team.

“I think this is an incredible testament to how the strong the program’s gotten, having three guys on the team,” Spring said. “I think it’s kind of weird that we’re all on the same team, but it is really cool for us and is going to be a great bonding experience.”

Spring competed at the Pan Ams himself in 2007, when he won the gold medal on the parallel bars and paved his way to qualify for Beijing in 2008. He said the games are very important, the next step for anyone who wants to make the Olympics.

“For me, it was a great transition into the Olympics,” Spring said. “It’s very similar, the media coverage, the process, the athlete village is like the Olympic village. It’s really an incredible experience.”

The team arrived in Mexico on Oct. 18, giving the competitors about a week to practice before the actual competition. During this week, Spring will determine the official lineups.

“I don’t think there’s any reason this team can’t go in and have their eyes set on winning the team gold,” Spring said.

Spring said all six athletes are talented all-arounders, and it’s most likely Maestas and Wynn will compete in all six events, while the others will stick to their four or five strongest ones.

“It’s different when you’re going international,” Ruggeri said. “Nobody really knows your face that well, nobody really knows your name. So it’s kind of more, just go out there and prove yourself, make a name for yourself right at that time and that moment.”

The athletes performance at the Pan Am games won’t directly influence their qualification for the Olympics, but Spring said every major competition from here on out is being carefully watched, especially on the international level.

“This is in preparation for the Olympics,” Maestas said. “Justin went in 2007 and it’s an honor to go now in 2011. I’m here now to represent my country and prepare for 2012. That’s the ultimate goal.”