Illini gymnastics: the powerhouse that deserves attention


Wenyuan Chen

Illinois’ Sarah Lyons performs a routine on the uneven parallel bars during the State of Illinois Classic at Huff Hall on Saturday, March 5, 2015. The Illini claimed victory for the ninth consecutive year with a total of 195.425 over Northern Illinois (194.225), UIC(192.625) and Illinois State (191.500).

By Orri Benatar, On-air sports editor

It’s easy to forget about smaller sports. Our attention is so focused on the pursuit of football and men’s basketball success that we can overlook all the great things other student-athletes achieve.

Golf has gained more of following, but it’s time another Illinois sport gets its due: gymnastics. This past weekend, the No. 3-ranked men upset No.2-ranked Penn State by seven points. A seven-point win in gymnastics is the equivalent to what men’s basketball did in its 91-60 victory over Rutgers on Tuesday night.

That same afternoon, at the exact same time and in the same location, the women’s team also beat Penn State. Gymnastics is a sport everyone on this campus should have some interest in, and here are three reasons why.

The sport is the ultimate test of one’s body

If you want to watch a sport that tests every physical aspect of a human being, gymnastics is for you. Strength, durability, flexibility, balance, mental focus and more are exhibited at any gymnastics meet in the NCAA or the Olympics. These are some of the best athletes on campus, and every apparatus has its own special quirk.

For the men, the high bar is a high-flying test of strength and precision, while the pommel horse requires serious core and arm strength. For the women, the balance beam is one of the most difficult things you can do in sports, and the vault requires incredible speed and strength. If you want to see how incredible a human gymnast is, just check out this small sample from Bridget Hodan at the 2017 Big Ten Championships.

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The coaches

Don’t get me wrong, Lovie Smith and Brad Underwood are a fantastic duo that offer a perfect balance of personality, Illini pride and knowledge. The gymnastics coaching tandem of Justin Spring and Nadalie Walsh are a fun pair who are as similar to their athletes as any coaches in the NCAA. Spring, a former Olympic medalist and Illini alum, coached men’s gymnastics to a national title in 2012. He is also one of the few coaches I have seen who can suit up now and still compete. Here is an Instagram video of him spinning like a lunatic on the high bar just two years ago.

On the women’s side, Walsh is a bright and vibrant coach who is trying to change the culture of the women’s team on campus. She is a Josh Whitman hire who can bring her sport glory as quickly, if not quicker, than the other four Whitman hires (Smith, Underwood, Nancy Fahey and Chris Tamas).

The consistency

The Illinois gymnastics programs are the most consistent on campus. The men’s team has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships every year of the millennium. They are also the last Illinois team to win a national championship. Last year was the first time in eight years an Illini didn’t win an individual title, and the most recent one individual winner, Brandon Ngai, became the youngest ever NCAA champion when he won the pommel horse at 16 years old. The women’s team has appeared at the NCAA regionals for 14 straight years and have finished in the top 25 for the last 12. These two teams are at the top of their game every year.

People want winners. Illini fans crave a winning team that is consistent every year and has the best athletes in the country. Illinois already has that. Gymnastics is an incredible sport to witness. These athletes are physically gifted and train their bodies to do ridiculous things. The men’s team is a powerhouse and the women’s team is building to become one. You want to watch winners? You’ve already got them at Huff Hall.


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