Equipment malfunction doesn’t stand in the way of men’s gymnastics team

Junior Vince Smurro was doing a simple high bar set during the Illinois men’s gymnastics practice last Thursday afternoon when he did a Yamawaki, a simple flip pass. The pressure from his long and lean body caused a metal bolt to tear out of the ground and the apparatus to fall backward. Smurro fell sideways, his landing protected by a safety rope.

Seeing Smurro’s fall and hearing the loud popping noise from the broken bolt, junior Austin Phillips led a charge across the gym wherein all the gymnasts jumped on Smurro, congratulating him and yelling that he was “beastly” and “manly beyond manly.”

It was dangerous, it was scary and Smurro could have died, head coach Justin Spring said after the incident. Smurro was perfectly fine, however; just a little shaken up.

“I don’t know if it’s the pass or just my long body that makes such a pull on the bar,” said Smurro, the tallest Illini gymnast at an even 6-foot. “Having a whole bolt snap in half on me, that was definitely a little scary. Thank God for that rope holding the high bar up, I did not know that that rope saved my life.”

The incident will be added to the 2012 men’s gymnastics blooper reel, a collection of similar situations. The video is already longer than last year’s compilation, which lasted four minutes. 16 seconds.

“The new video is twice as crazy,” Spring said. “I don’t think people realize … The possibility for an injury on a freak thing is there in every turn, at every practice.”

An incident with the high bar breaking happens pretty often, senior Paul Ruggeri said.

The bolt has snapped every year in his five years at Kenney Gym, two years ago to him when he was doing a Liukin, a full twisting skill.

“I think they happen way more than they should,” Ruggeri said. “I was already in flight when it ripped out of the ground, so I could use the bar to pull myself back to ground and land safely.”

Equipment failures add to the typical fear of injury from missing a landing or not catching a turn, Spring said.

If an equipment failure takes place during competition and it is solely because of the apparatus, then the athlete is allowed to restart his performance. If the equipment failure occurs because of something an athlete or coach neglected to do, however, like tighten bars or adjust vault equipment correctly, then the athlete must carry on or stop his routine.

“Sometimes it causes injury and sometimes it doesn’t,” Ruggeri said. “We have really good body awareness, air awareness. So if something goes wrong, we can normally correct it.”

Freak accidents can include bolts coming out of the ground, hand grips snapping, bars coming loose, or many other small mishaps due to the fragility of equipment, like a ring breaking in half. This happened to Illini gymnast Tyler Willamson during the 2010 NCAA Championships, when the fiberglass ring snapped in half, halting a meet for three hours.

It’s not even about the condition of an apparatus. In 2009, Phillips was breaking in brand new hand grips during a quick practice before leaving for Big Tens when his new grips snapped in half. He fell, was diagnosed with a concussion and was sidelined for the postseason.

Ruggeri was out for the majority of last season because of a freak accident at the 2011 U.S. Winter Cup Challenge, where his hand grips slipped while warming up on the vault.

“We just don’t think about it,” Ruggeri said. “Because, if you think about it, then you’re gonna be scared. Every time you step on the equipment, you’re gonna be scared to touch anything, so you can’t think about it.”

These accidents are seen to the gymnasts as another addition for the blooper reel because that’s how they deal with it, Ruggeri said. The fear of injury is part of the sport, and the gymnast is trained to continue on when accidents happen, always hoping to finish his routine.

After laughing at Smurro during Thursday’s practice, Spring looked at assistant coach Daniel Ribeiro and said, “Well, we better call up the metal workers so we can have a high bar to practice on.”