Illinois’ Alex Diab hopes to honor coach, father
February 28, 2016
Fans only see gymnasts’ finished products.
They don’t see the hours of preparation, the rehab and the relationships these athletes have that are much deeper than the sport.
All of these things had a role in Alex Diab’s journey to Illinois and explain why he’s been one of the Illini’s top performers all year.
Two weeks ago, the all-arounder competed in the Winter Cup Challenge, trying to earn a spot on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team. Although he was not selected, he finished tied for eighth on still rings — the same event he earned his first career title in earlier this season.
Diab has displayed great poise during his still ring performances all year, but that should not come as a surprise. His father, Mark Diab, was the back-to-back NCAA Champion on still rings in 1985 and 1986.
Mark spent five years in Ames, Iowa, as an Iowa State Cyclone.
“I was a walk-on freshman and at the time. We had over 40 guys on the team,” Mark said. “My goal was just to make the team at some point.
“I finally cracked the lineup on a regular basis my junior year. I worked rings, floor and vault.”
Mark didn’t start gymnastics until he was in high school. But a few years later, he was named the Iowa State Male Athlete of the Year — beating out fellow Cyclone and future NBA All-Star and head coach Jeff Hornacek.
His alma mater would eventually drop its men’s gymnastics program in 1994, only eight years after Mark graduated.
“It was terrible,” Mark said. “That was a period where a lot of men’s gymnastics teams all over the country started getting dropped.”
Many universities were replacing men’s athletic programs with women’s programs during this time, due to Title IX legislation.
After watching men’s gymnastics programs get dropped left and right, Mark decided to end his pursuit of a collegiate coaching career, and instead opened his own gymnastics academy — the Premiere Gymnastics Academy — in May of 1995.
Two years later his first child, Alex, was born, and by the age of five the future Illini was competing in his first gymnastics competitions — learning from none other than his father.
“He’s always been a mentor and coach for me,” Alex said. “(He’s) someone who I’ve always looked up to.”
Alex and a few other gymnasts practiced five times a week with his father. The all-arounder would usually come home from school and spend another four hours flipping around his dad’s gym, perfecting his craft.
“I played other sports,“ Alex said. “But going on to seventh grade, that’s when I really decided I’m going to focus on just gymnastics.”
Mark never had to force his love of gymnastics on to Alex or use his own accolades to instill a standard of excellence. He enrolled his son in gymnastics just to give Alex an outlet for physical activity, but the intangibles came naturally.
That’s when Mark realized that he not only had the opportunity to be a good father, but also a good coach. With two NCAA titles under his belt, he knew a thing or two about helping his son become a better gymnast.
For 12 years Mark not only provided his son with constructive criticism, he was there when being a father took precedence over being a coach. One time in particular was when his son suffered a serious knee injury on a parallel bars dismount during his sophomore year of high school.
“I got hurt right before nationals my sophomore year,” Alex said. “I ended up fracturing my femur, so I was in a full leg brace for about three months.”
Alex had just won the Illinois state championships and was one of the top high school gymnasts in the country, but just like that he was sidelined. Having to sit out was disheartening for Alex, but after the shock of the injury subsided, his father tried his best to find the silver lining.
“As a parent I tried to let him know, anytime something like this happens there’s always a plus,” Mark said. “If you’re not going to be able to do any kind of dismounts, that’s more time you can spend on conditioning and your upper body strength.”
In retrospect, Alex is thankful for his dad’s advice and believes he is a better gymnast because of it — specifically on still rings.
The Illini are less than a week away from their last three competitions of the season, in which Alex looks to continue his impressive freshman campaign. Then, they’ll take off to Columbus, Ohio, for the Big Ten Championships.
The 5-foot-2 gymnast is locked in and ready to help his team bring home the conference title. But aside from this season and this squad, he also has some lofty aspirations for his individual career as well — one in particular involves still rings.
“It would be such a cool thing for me and my dad to both be national champions at the collegiate level,” Alex said. “That’s been my goal since I was really young.”
The freshman doesn’t feel any pressure to live up to his dad’s accomplishments, but looks at a NCAA still rings title as a way to honor the man who introduced him to the sport he loves.
“You get an appreciation seeing your son accomplish the goals they set,” Mark said. “I can’t be more proud of the kid.”