Illinois’ Alex Diab hopes to honor coach, father

By James Boyd

Often times when athletes enter a venue, the audience is seeing the individuals’ finished project. They don’t see the hours of preparation, the rehabs after injuries, or the relationships athletes have that are much deeper than the sport.

All three had a role in Alex Diab’s journey to the University of Illinois, and are why he’s been one of the Illinois men’s gymnasts’ top scorers 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 on earlier this season.

Diab has displayed great poise during his still ring performances all season long, 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.”

Not starting gymnastics until he was in high school, a few years later, Mark was named the Iowa State Male Athlete of the Year — beating out Iowa State standout and former NBA All-Star 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, Premiere Gymnastics Academy, in May of 1995.

Two years later his first child, Alex, was born and by the age of five the Illini freshman 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 several hours at school, and spend another four hours flipping around his dad’s gym, perfecting his craft.

“I played other sports, “ Alex said. “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 a good coach as well. 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, but 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.

For someone who was
so used to participating
in strenuous activities, it was quite the transition for Alex. Simple
things,
like grabbing a snack from the refrigerator, became missions for his
younger
siblings to help him with. The halls of Glenbard West High School, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, turned into a
maze
of quick legs and open doors during passing periods. The crutches — while at first foreign — eventually became his main source
of transportation.

After the shock of the injury eventually
subsided, his dad tried his best to find the silver lining. Before
Alex would eventually start biking and squatting to strengthen the muscle
around his healed femur, Mark suggested that his son use the beginning stages of his rehabilitation process
at Accelerated Physical Therapy to fortify other aspects of his gymnastics repertoire.

“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.”

Alex was 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 all-arounder is locked in and ready to help his team bring home the first place trophy, 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.”

[email protected]

@RomeovilleKid