A conversation with an Illini: C.J. Maestas

By Kevin McCarthy

Senior C.J. Maestas of the Illinois men’s gymnastics team just returned with an NCAA high bar national championship and All-American honors in the all-around. This week I sat down with him to talk about his collegiate career, his hair products and his family.

Kevin McCarthy: You have accomplished a lot in your four years here — two individual national titles and a team national title. Which achievement means the most to you?

C.J. Maestas: The most important achievement is all of the friendships I’ve created here. Winning is phenomenal — winning national titles as a freshman and a senior were great accolades — but I’ve got brothers for the rest of my life here.

KM: You were the first in your family to go to college. What does that mean to you?

CM: It means everything. When I’m a grandfather or a great-grandfather someday, I can look at my grandchildren and say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

KM: How did you overcome missing your entire sophomore season after tearing your right triceps?

CM: It was really hard for me. I was just off the highest high of my life — winning a team title in 2012, winning a title on the rings and just barely missing out on the Olympic team — things were going right. They originally thought I tore my UCL. That would have been devastating to my career. I was thinking that I may never do gymnastics again. Support from family, friends, teammates and coaches is what got me through it.

KM: How did it hit you when there was a possibility of you never being able to do gymnastics again after your injury?

CM: It was surreal. I remember just feeling … like I had no purpose. I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is it. What am I going to do?” Everything I had worked for seemed to be gone. Fortunately everything worked out, and I came back from it stronger than ever. I think it’s made me better as a person and a gymnast.

KM: Why do you wear No. 4?

CM: The No. 4 represents me (and my siblings). I always feel like they’re with me when I’m competing. To have them on my back, with “Maestas” written above it just means so much to me.

KM: What do your three little siblings mean to you?

CM: They’re my world. My little brother, he’s my little goon. My little sister, Courtney, she’s practically my twin. She’s just a girl version of me. And my baby sister is a gremlin. So I’ve got my goon, my twin and my gremlin. They’re literally my life.

KM: What about your parents — what do they mean to you?

CM: I can’t even put the words together — I love them so much. They’ve taught me everything. My pops has worked his butt off to get to where he is. My mom, the way she has taken care of us and just loved us — there’s nobody like Mamacita.

KM: What’s your relationship like with head coach Justin Spring?

CM: Justin’s like a second father to me. I was a sophomore in high school when he was on the Olympic team in 2008, so I looked up to him. To have him as my coach, it still gives me goose bumps. I’m so far away from home, so to have him is amazing. He’s a beast — an awesome man, gymnast and coach.

KM: What’s your favorite event?

CM: Rings is my all-time favorite. But high bar has grown on me a lot. I love flying and hearing the crowd in the background when I do an awesome skill. They “ooo” and “ahhh.” It’s a show. When I’m doing high bar, I want people to think, “That kid is flippin’ crazy.”

KM: What are your post-graduation plans?

CM: I graduate in May and head out to Colorado Springs to train for the Olympics — get back on the national team and make some money. It’s time to go professional. I’ll be representing Illinois, (my hometown) Albuquerque, my family, my friends, my team and this University at the 2016 Olympics.

KM: What are your goals for the 2016 Olympics?

CM: I don’t just want to go, I don’t just want to call myself an Olympian, I want to win.

KM: You mentioned that (U.S. Olympians) McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas are good friends of yours — what can you learn from their success?

CM: Stay humble and stay true to who you are.

KM: How about me? At 6-foot-3, what are my chances at being a gymnast?

CM: (Laughs) I think you would be nasty at high bar for sure — because you’ve got sick strength. And pommel horse — you gotta be tall and lengthy to show off those circles.

KM: You’ve got spiky hair — what hair product do you use?

CM: Right now I’m on “L’oreal studio,” it smells great too. It’s all you need, either gel or a snapback hat. I was going to say I like the hat you’re rocking right now too.

A national champion just complimented me on my hat — so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Kevin is a freshman in Media.

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@KevOMcCarthy