Ruggeri beginning redemptive journey toward Olympic Games

_Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series highlighting Illinois gymnast Paul Ruggeri’s road to potentially qualifying for the 2012 London Olympic Games._

If someone is looking for Paul Ruggeri, their best bet is Kenney Gym.

The Illinois gymnast is there nearly every morning and afternoon, training to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. If there is any question how someone can devote as much time to training as Ruggeri does while studying to become a doctor, the senior found the answer.

With two classes needed to graduate, Ruggeri is still an Illinois student under the Olympic Exemption, which allows athletes in direct training for an Olympic or World Championship event to be exempt from the eight-hour rule for eligibility, Illinois head coach Justin Spring said.

The exemption worked out perfectly for Ruggeri, who wouldn’t know what he would be doing had he graduated on time.

“Maybe I would have taken time to tour with Cirque (du Soleil) or to coach or to train at the Olympic Training Center, I don’t know,” Ruggeri said. “Now it doesn’t matter.”

A year ago, Ruggeri was on the fast track to gymnastics success. He was in great shape, performing top routines and had a spot as an alternate on the World Championships team, making him one of the top seven gymnasts in the country.

“Paul is always great, always consistent, there’s just something special when he competes,” Daniel Ribeiro, current assistant coach and Ruggeri’s four-year teammate said in August.

Then, last January, Ruggeri was competing in the World Cup with hopes of becoming the national champion on the all-around. It didn’t go as he had hoped, resulting in a “season-ending injury”: due to a ruptured peroneal ligament on his left ankle.

“The injury was rough, it set me back from where I imagined myself being,” Ruggeri said.

After surgery and a long, slow recovery process, Ruggeri is focused on proving himself again, to show he is back to full force and a top contender for the 2012 Olympic Games. His extra practices have helped, putting him in “the best shape I’ve ever seen him,” Spring said.

On Oct. 24-28, Ruggeri will represent USA at the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“He needs to kick butt at Pan-Ams, that’s his first step if he wants to achieve,” Spring said. “He has improved a lot of his routines since Visas.”

At the “VISA Championships”: this summer, Ruggeri made the national team but not the world team. He will have to try out again for the national team at the U.S. Winter Cup in January.

“Paul needs to shine at Winter Cup, it is beyond important to him,” Spring said. “He needs to over-prepare for Winter Cup, because he needs to get on that team if he wants to make it to the Olympics.”

The members of the national team after Winter Cup will compete in the USA Championships in the Spring and then the Olympic Trials in early summer.

The Olympic dream has been long coming for Ruggeri, who started gymnastics at age 7.

“I’ve lived in a gym since I was a little kid, this is all I know,” Ruggeri said. “I want to look back and either see that I tried my best and made it or that I tried my best and didn’t make it. I need to put it all out there.”

Although Ruggeri has other interests, like art, photography and potentially going to medical school, the Olympics are his priority. He thinks his best bet is to prove himself as an individual.

“If I can make it in the Olympic team than I will feel fully fulfilled as a person,” Ruggeri said. “My life will be a lot less stress. If I don’t make it, then I will still have something left to prove, I will have to find my niche somewhere else.”

It’s going to take work for Ruggeri to accomplish his dream though — work and heart, Spring said.

“Paul and I have very similar stories,” said Spring, Illinois graduate and bronze medalist on the 2008 team. “Groomed for success and then injuries happen that can be very rough to come back from. A lot of people think you can’t do it.”

Spring said Ruggeri needs to upgrade on his two weakest events. “Paul is world class on four events (parallel bars, high bar, floor and vault),” Spring said. “But to make the five-man team he needs to be better on pommel horse and rings.”

It’s those events he tries to improve during the mornings, when he’s the lone athlete working out at Kenney Gym. Everybody else is in class, while Ruggeri runs on the elliptical and sticks to base and strength work, focusing on his dream.