Illini gymnasts seek spots on Team USA

By Jeff LaBelle

It’s not a vacation. It’s a shot at paradise.

As nearly 80 gymnasts from around the country gather for the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas this weekend, including four from Illinois, the weather back home is an afterthought.

By Saturday, seven gymnasts will be named to the USA National Team, which means a chance at overseas tournaments and an opportunity to spread their names on a broad, world stage. Seventy-degree forecasts bode well for many looking to heat up the floor and turn some heads.

“This is becoming a very important competition,” Illinois men’s gymnastics head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “First of all, these guys have the chance to become USA team members and compete internationally. It’s not just college gymnasts here, it’s some older guys with more experience. This is a great opportunity for them.”

Representing Illinois are three current team members – juniors Wesley Haagensen, Tyler Yamauchi, and sophomore Chris Lung. Adam Pummer, last year’s team co-captain and former volunteer assistant coach, is also competing in what may be his last attempt at making the national team.

“If Adam doesn’t make the team, I don’t know if he’ll continue to train,” said Justin Spring, Pummer’s close friend and current Illinois assistant coach. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a teammate that’s been on a national team with me. It would be outstanding if I did. Training in the gym by myself is tough. I’m just hoping these guys hit their sets like I know they can.”

Spring, too, is hoping to be added to the national team this weekend, but through other channels. Of the seven spots available for the national team, four will be chosen at the USA committee’s discretion. Spring, because of his previous accomplishments and extenuating injury circumstances, hopes he’s among the top candidates being considered for a spot.

He’s appealing to the committee for their consideration.

Haagensen, Yamauchi, Lung and Pummer have all competed in the tournament before. In preliminary rounds that start today, two waves of approximately 42 gymnasts will battle for a spot in Saturday’s competition. Of those 36 gymnasts that make the final round, only the top three finishers are assured spots on the national team. A live webcast of the events will be streamed from usa-gymnastics.org at 9-11 p.m. on Saturday. Spring says the experience is unlike anything he’s seen in normal NCAA competition.

“We’ve got four guys out there, competing for their life on the national team,” Spring said. “It’s pretty intense, but it’s good for them.”