Illini of the Decade: #8: Paul Ruggeri

Competing at the 2009 Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, gymnast Paul Ruggeri suffered an injury to his knee in the preliminary rounds of the competition. Two days later, Ruggeri battled through the injury to become the U.S. national champion on the high bar.

It’s that kind of drive and determination that has made the Illini junior such an outstanding athlete.

“If he sets his mind to it, he’s going to get it,” Illinois associate head coach Justin Spring said. “He’s such a perfectionist. In a lot of articles, you see a coach will often say that someone is a perfectionist, and they’re usually talking about their most unique athlete. That’s a sign of greatness … there’s a reason he’s got so many national titles under his belt.”

It was no minor injury that Ruggeri suffered back in February 2009.

He was sidelined for a month while recovering from surgery to repair his meniscus. It wasn’t enough to derail the seven-time All-American, though. Less than three months after the surgery, Ruggeri took the podium at the NCAA Championships to be named high bar and parallel bar national champion. It was his second consecutive high bar title.

In addition to his All-America selections and three NCAA titles, Ruggeri won two Big Ten event titles in 2009.

What makes it even more impressive is that as a junior, he’s only slightly more than halfway through his collegiate career.

Ruggeri is on the path to becoming a legend in Illinois athletics history. Last season, he was named the UI Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year, an award given to the top male and female Illini athletes each year. Not only is Illinois happy to have him, but he’s just as happy to be at Illinois.

“Being an Illini is such an honor. I came here because I thought that it was the best of every part of life,” Ruggeri said.

“There’s such a great family feeling on our team and also at the whole University. It’s a great feeling you get being here. It’s been an honor being part of this Illini family.”

Ruggeri makes his routines look so easy, but all that success has come from countless hours of hard work in the gym.

“He does everything to the extreme,” Spring said. “He’s going to make everything that he does perfect.

It’s that same attention to detail and perseverance that’s going to move into anything he wants.”

Spring, who former Illinois head coach Yoshi Hayasaki often compares to Ruggeri, can also attest to what Ruggeri brings to the University, other than just his ability in the gym.

“He’s well-rounded, very respectful, loves to have fun, but always handles his stuff,” Spring said. “He’s never been the one that I’ve always had to be on about getting his school work done, getting things done in the gym.

“He’s very driven, very focused. He’s going to go on and make a great doctor; I have no doubt about that. He’s a good friend and genuine good guy.”

In addition to the individual accomplishments, Ruggeri also led the Illini to a Big Ten title and fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2009. And Spring isn’t the only person who can see what Ruggeri has brought to this team — his teammates can see it as well.

“He’s got so much potential. He can go as far as he wants to, is the best way to put it,” sophomore Devin Regan said. “As far as he decides to take his gymnastics is as far as he’s going to go. I have no doubt about that.”

While Ruggeri’s collegiate achievements continue to pile up as he competes in his junior year, there is more waiting for him beyond his time at Illinois. Hayasaki spoke last year about his plan for Ruggeri.

“Obviously the next step for him is to be on the national team,” Hayasaki said. “After that, who knows how far he’s going to go? It’s going to become more and more how much desire he has.”

And it’s all going according to plan. Ruggeri was named to the U.S. senior national team on Feb. 6 after finishing fifth in selection points at the 2010 Winter Cup Challenge — the same competition he was injured in a year before that cost him a chance to compete in all the events it would have taken to make the national team.

Ruggeri’s already made his mark on the program and certainly will have more to add in the closing stages of his collegiate career.

Not many believe that his gymnastics career will stop here, though, and some think there are no limits to what he can achieve.

“I think he is following in the steps of our former great Justin Spring,” Hayasaki said.

“Who knows how far he could go? He’s got a reputation to be one of the greats.”