Ruggeri’s road: Six Illini gymnasts to compete at Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas

_Editor’s note: This is the third part of a series highlighting Illinois gymnast Paul Ruggeri’s road to potentially qualifying for the 2012 London Olympic Games. An earlier version of this story contained a picture caption that stated that Paul Ruggeri took second place in the high bar event when he actually took first place. The Daily Illini regrets this error._

They’ll still be wearing orange and blue, cheering on their teammates and throwing around the skills they have been practicing all weekend. But six gymnasts will be competing against each other as the No. 2 Illinois men’s gymnastics team takes a break from team competition to pursue individual glory at the 2012 Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas from Thursday through Sunday.

There are eight available spots on the U.S. Senior National Team, which competes internationally. This competition has no direct effect on selection for the 2012 Olympic team, but because it is an Olympic year, the committee will be observing every move, Illinois head coach Justin Spring said.

Seniors Paul Ruggeri, Tyler Mizoguchi and freshman C.J. Maestas will compete in the all-around, junior Austin Phillips is competing on five events and senior Anthony Sacramento and freshman Mike Wilner are competing on the rings.

Ruggeri, Maestas and Mizoguchi were all on the national team in the fall and hope to retain their spots. It is a rare occurrence for three gymnasts from one school to be on the same team — Stanford and University of California Berkley had two gymnasts each on the squad.

“It’s kind of a unique situation to have three of the country’s top all-arounders all on your own team,” Spring said. “There’s a lot of great athletes out there, but they all stand a chance.”

With such a large number of all-around contenders, the Illini gymnasts have an advantage when training. Last year, before Maestas came to Illinois and when Ruggeri was injured, Mizoguchi was oftentimes training for national competitions and the all-around by himself.

“Having three all-arounders, it’s crazy, intense, fun, motivating, I could go on forever,” Mizoguchi said. “It’s a really good sense of spirit for our team, it really helps out having all those guys do all the events.”

The three, who are used to being the best in their gyms, now have to compete with one another every day for spots in the lineup. There is no guarantee that any of them will compete in the all-around on any given day. So far, Maestas has competed in the all-around twice at the Windy City Invitational and at a dual meet against Iowa, where Ruggeri and Mizoguchi went against him.

“Every one of us is trying to be the best, to trying to beat the other,” Ruggeri said. “If one person slams a set, then you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to hit this one now, too.’”

Spring said Maestas and Mizoguchi are very similar competitors, having solid routines on all six events. The selection committee will likely choose between Mizoguchi and Maestas because of their similar styles. Ruggeri is different because he has four main events with some of the highest start values in the world.

The trio is able to help each other because they are experiencing the same problems — pressures of making the national team, frustrations on not hitting all their routines and coming up with the strength and energy it takes to make it through six events in one night.

One of the Maestas’ favorite lessons he has picked up from Ruggeri is his technique for keeping energy during the all-around: eating cubes of sugar and taking swigs of honey.

“Paul’s like the godfather of it all with his ideas,” Maestas said. “He knows what’s up.”

Mizoguchi said the all-arounders are constantly giving each other advice at practice on technique, skills and keeping up their peak performance.

Their relationships grew when Mizougchi, Maestas and Ruggeri all traveled to the Pan American Games together in October, with Spring as their coach, making up the majority of the five-man team.

“We went through a mini-Olympics experience together,” Ruggeri said. “I’ve never bonded that much with guys in my life.”

As much as they help each other, the gymnasts are still in it for themselves.

“I mean, me and C.J. and Mizo, we all help each other through whatever we can,” Ruggeri said. “But in the end, we want it for ourselves, you know? It’s not like any one of us goes out of our way for every single person.”

The goal for all participating gymnasts is to make the national team, even the specialists who are in minimal events, but it’s unlikely that six Illinois gymnasts will make the eight-man team.

“Somebody hasn’t made it every year,” Mizoguchi said. “We’re just going to go out there, do our best, and if somebody doesn’t make it, we’ll give them just as much support as everyone else.”