Illini of the Decade: #18 Wes Haagensen

Editor’s note: Continuing today and 2-3 times a week into March, The Daily Illini sports staff presents one of its biggest and most ambitious projects ever — an opinionated look at the Top 20 Illini Athletes of the Decade, from 2000-2009. Enjoy reading, talking and arguing about what made the top Illini athletes of the past 10 years so great.

The nerves inside the Lloyd Noble Center at the University of Oklahoma were almost high enough to elevate the parallel bars further off the ground. It was April 7, 2006, and the Illini were down by just .550 points to Oklahoma heading into the final rotation of the NCAA Championships.

The first three Illini to take to the bars — one of their best events at the time — had mediocre performances, including a damaging fall by freshman Chris Lung. Wes Haagensen was the only gymnast left before Illinois’ two co-captains would be called on to close out the meet.

In the next couple of minutes, Haagensen accelerated his career with a solid 9.6 in his favorite event, revealing the most emotion he ever did as an Illini.

“I remember him sticking his dismount,” teammate Michael Boyer said. “If you could physically make the emotion of pure excitement, that was his face, that was his body. He stuck that dismount. All of the pressure was riding on us. He had to hit. He hit. Slammed it. Stuck the dismount. The look on his face and the clap he made, everything about it just gleamed excitement. It was perfect. I remember that so vividly.”

Haagensen rarely showed emotion as an Illini, but this was an exception. And it illuminated what collegiate athletics are all about.

“It was the best parallel bar routine maybe I’ve ever done,” Haagensen said. “It was just really exciting. It was one of those moments where you did everything you could, you get the adrenaline rushing and everything. It was kind of like a buzzer-beater shot.”

But Illinois would go on to finish second to Oklahoma, losing by a mere 0.425 points. Despite the finish, the seven-time All-American’s reaction illustrated why he was there in the first place.

“I was thinking, ‘How did we not win this meet?’” Haagensen said. “But other than that, I was thinking there’s nothing that makes you feel the way that that felt. Nothing makes you feel amped up and proud and gives you that rush, that buzz, performing the best that you can, sticking a dismount when it counts.”

For Haagensen, his gymnastics career at Illinois wasn’t about finishing as runner-up in the all-around at the 2007 NCAA Championships, winning 2007 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year or being named to three All-Big Ten teams. Rather, it was about letting the butterflies loose in his stomach. It was about building self-confidence, performing under pressure and establishing life-long friendships.

And his approach to competition rubbed off on others.

“That event was the most exciting moment in my gymnastics career, and Wes turned it around,” Boyer said of the 2007 Championships. “When things are looking down, and all of a sudden someone can have the focus and do what you’re meant to do and just absolutely do it perfectly, you need that. The attitude of the team, the cheers, the screams, they need to be there, and he brought them back.”

Haagensen’s approach to competition was built with the help of his grandparents, who raised him since he was two.

“They sacrificed more than anyone could really ask,” Haagensen said. “My grandfather has relocated twice and taken on two different jobs. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am. That’s for sure.”

His grandmother, Judy Whicker, used to drop him off at a community gym so she could run errands, not realizing how much natural talent he had.

Their town only had a girls’ team, so for several years Haagensen just took lessons for one hour a week and couldn’t compete.

Whicker said Haagensen’s quiet manner during competition at Illinois was nothing new and that it began at that gym.

“He never appeared outward nervous, but we knew he probably was,” she said.

His grandfather, Wayne Whicker, added that he didn’t even complain when he was injured.

The Whickers sent Haagensen to Illinois because he already knew many faces on the Illini squad, including Justin Spring and Adam Pummer.

In no time, Haagensen contributed, as he captured the all-around title against Minnesota in just his second collegiate meet.

The Bellville, Ill., native was much of the reason the Illini finished in the top five at the NCAA Championships in all four of his seasons on the team.

“He was a very intense worker,” former Illinois head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “He strived for excellence, and he had a high hope of doing well here at Illinois. The team accomplished a lot while he was here, and he was a big part of that.”

Hayasaki said in his 33 years with the program, he has never seen anyone with as much “will to win, not just as an individual, but to win as a team.”

Haagensen was a finalist for the Nissen-Emery Award in 2008, which is considered the Heisman Trophy of college gymnastics.

He lost out to Jonathan Horton of Okalahoma, who went on to compete at the Beijing Olympics.

However, Haagensen will be remembered for his spirit.

“He’s got that non-stop aggression,” Boyer said. “He’s going for it. He’s the best. He wants to be No. 1, and you can tell. That’s what gets everyone ready to work out and go. It’s contagious, that sort of attitude.”

When it came time for competition, Haagensen kept his feelings inside until it was over. The fewest emotions on the team came from the strongest heart.

“People looked up to him,” Boyer said. “He was that guy in the huddle who always had the right thing to say, who had an attitude that knew exactly how to pump everyone up or knew exactly how to calm everyone down. He was the inspiration in the huddle.”

Boyer said attempting to reiterate one of Haagensen’s huddle speeches wouldn’t do justice.

“His general presence, the tone in his voice, how loud he was talking … It was his attitude, his presence,” Boyer said. “He was able to vocalize what everyone was feeling. He was the best at that.”

Hayasaki echoed Boyer’s sentiments.

“He was not always vocal,” Hayasaki said of Haagensen. “I think he was more focused on the training, and working out and trying to do well in school. But when he had some ideas and feelings, he would express himself, and the coaches and athletes listened to what he had to say.”

As Haagensen now trains for the 2012 Olympics in London, he remains connected with those he touched in the Illini program.

“We worked really well as one unit, one team,” Haagensen said of the Illini. “When I left college, it was kind of like leaving a family behind. Sixteen of my closest friends. They were like brothers to me.”

For Haagensen, it wasn’t about flashing his orange and blue on the victory stand but rather about igniting the spirit within himself and his teammates.

During his last collegiate routine — the parallel bars event final at the 2008 NCAA Championships — he proved just that. And this time, when it was over and done with, it all came out.

“I exploded,” Haagensen said of when he hit the mat. “It was a rush of happy moments. ‘Yeah, I did it.’ This is what this sport’s about. You get the adrenaline. You do your routine, and you do it like you plan to do it. There’s not too many feelings of excitement like that.”