Standout gymnast removed from Illinois men’s team

Tyler Mizoguchi — three-time All-American, 2011 national champion on the parallel bars and runner-up on the all-around — is no longer on the Illinois men’s gymnastics team following what Illinois head coach Justin Spring called a team agreement.

Mizoguchi was the collegiate gymnast to watch last spring. The then-junior competed in the all-around eight times, concluding with a near-perfect weekend at the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships, where he claimed his national honors.

“I am truly satisfied with how I did,” Mizoguchi said last April. “Now next year, I want to do better and lead my team to a national championship.”

Illinois has a shot of winning its first national title in 23 years, but Mizoguchi won’t be a part of it.

He was only available for interviews through email and wrote he was no longer on the team due to “personal reasons.”

“It’s tough, certainly Tyler’s athleticism, his ability to compete is going to be missed,” Spring said. “You’ve gotta look at a person as a whole and look at the negative energy in practice, on the team and in other things. There gets to be a point where you can’t jeopardize the program and the team energy for some competitive results. It just got to the point where the team environment was going to be better without Tyler in the gym.”

Mizoguchi’s scholarship was taken away his sophomore year but he wasn’t off it until 2011 “because my phone went off in class during a quiz and (the) teacher thought I was cheating,” he wrote. “It happened to be my alarm that I didn’t silence, (and) Coach Spring thought he had to make an example out of me because he is a young coach and needs to prove himself.”

After applying himself his junior year as both a gymnast for Illinois and Team USA as well as a student, Mizoguchi tried to get his scholarship back.

“(Spring) told me that it was up to the administration,” Mizoguchi wrote. “But when I talked to my compliance director for athletics, he told me it was all in Spring’s hands.”

Spring reluctantly declined to comment on the scholarship and cheating situations because of confidentiality rules.

“Not having a scholarship for sure put a lot of stress on me,” Mizoguchi wrote. “My family does not have a lot of money and the scholarship was the only reason I was able to come to school here.”

After last year’s breakthrough season, Mizoguchi was named the Illini’s Most Outstanding Gymnast by the program. Depth was added to the roster this year, as freshman C.J. Maestas joined the program and fifth-year senior Paul Ruggeri returned after injury.

Spring said that at the time it seemed like the energy was good and the trio fed off one another.

Mizoguchi, Ruggeri and Maestas all competed at the VISA Championships in August, when Maestas and Ruggeri were named to the U.S. Senior National Team and the U.S. Pan American team. Mizoguchi was not named to either.

He was called up to the Pan American team in mid-September because UC-Berkely’s Glen Ishino was injured.

Spring, the Pan American team coach, then petitioned for and was granted a spot for Mizoguchi on the national team.

Once the collegiate gymnastics season began in January, Mizoguchi, Ruggeri and Maestas were in contention for spots on the national team once again and for the NCAA all-around title at the season’s end. A dual meet against Iowa on Jan. 21 was expected to be a battle between the trio, as a warm up for the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge.

“All three of them have big chances of winning Big Ten or NCAA Championships in the all-around,” Spring said in January. “There’s a lot of great athletes out there, but they all stand a chance. It’s kind of an unique situation to have three of the countries top all-arounders all on your own team.”

Mizoguchi finished lowest of the three in that meet. Two weeks later, members of the team traveled to Las Vegas for the 2012 U.S. Winter Cup Challenge, where the gymnasts battled to retain their spots on the national team.

Mizoguchi suffered a concussion in a home meet on Jan. 28 during warm ups when he hit his head on the floor, affecting his Winter Cup experience. Mizoguchi was slated to compete in the all-around but did not participate in the floor exercise because, as Mizoguchi wrote, “the doctors wouldn’t let me.”

“I do feel like I should have been able to compete on everything,” he said.

Mizoguchi was not placed on the U.S. Senior National Team after the Winter Cup: an indicator he will not make the national team this summer when spots on Olympic Trials and the U.S. Olympic Team are on the line. Ruggeri and Maestas were given spots on the team, along with Illinois volunteer assistant coach David Sender.

After the Winter Cup, Mizoguchi’s absence from the Illinois team began.

“One of the first conversations when Tyler and I really sat down after Winter Cup, I think the focus for Tyler should be academics and graduating and leaving here in a positive way,” Spring said. “I think that you can get burnt out so much of a sport that training can become such a burden that it’s not enjoyable anymore. At that point, it’s best to leave it behind. That was the direction of the original conversation.”

Mizoguchi said that not making the national team affected his motivation.

Post-Winter Cup, the only meet Mizoguchi competed in was senior night, a home dual against Ohio State on March 2. He competed on the pommel horse, parallel bars and tied for second place on rings.

“That was tough,” Spring said. “Coming off Winter Cup, there were some things, but I thought certainly he deserved to compete in senior night. Looking at the overall athletic things that he’s done for this program.

“At this point we were kind of on a rebuilding path still.”

Spring said the rebuilding path is now done.

He officially decided that Mizoguchi was no longer on the team on March 12 after evaluating him and the team as a whole.

Spring said Mizoguchi did not abide by the team rules set at the beginning of each season.

“You have the generalized rules,” Spring said. “Going beyond that, it’s agreed that anything that’s not conducive to the well-being of the team and yourself is something we need to look at and talk about.”

Mizoguchi does not agree with Spring’s decision.

“It’s not a mutual agreement,” Mizoguchi wrote. “I do not agree with a lot of Coach Springs choices. This being said, he is a young coach and he will learn.”

Mizoguchi acknowledged that at one point he was bringing down the team.

“That was my own personal depression that I have… worked on and am now very happy,” Mizoguchi wrote.

Spring is still coaching Mizoguchi as a person and academic services is still working with him, but he is not in the gym.

Mizoguchi’s absence from the Illini lineup will be significant as he had high scores on all six events. The presence of Ruggeri and Maestas along with many strong specialists can help soften the loss.

“Tyler at his best will be missed. … The problem was that I wasn’t confident where he was going to be every competition this year,” Spring said.

“With a national championship certainly within our grasp this year, it certainly made the decision more difficult,” he added.

Spring said although Mizoguchi was a strong competitor, what had to be looked at was what happened daily in practice.

Mizoguchi, who lives with senior captain and All-American Anthony Sacramento, has maintained his relationship with team members.

“It sucks to not be a part of the team,” Mizoguchi wrote. “I have given so much to the team and wish I could help them on even one event at NCAA’s.”

He has been training with the club gymnastics team at Kenney Gym in case there’s a chance he can still contribute.

“I would still like to compete for the team, but Coach Spring does not believe it would be a good idea,” Mizoguchi wrote. “Any more information you will have to ask him.”

Spring said there is no chance of Mizoguchi competing this NCAA season. If possible, Mizoguchi plans to attend as a fan.

“I would say this is not how I would want to remember it,” Mizoguchi wrote. “But God has a plan (and) this is mine I guess.”

Mizoguchi has been training and focusing on his studies and even bought a new puppy four weeks ago.

“I have always wanted a dog and (I) was very depressed,” Mizoguchi wrote. “She has now turned my life upside down and makes me a better person everyday.”

He plans to graduate in May and is thinking about joining Cirque du Soleil.

Mizoguchi is unsure if he will compete at the VISA Championships in June for a spot on the national team and in the Olympic Trials for a potential spot at the 2012 London Olympics, something that before was a strong and definite goal for him. Spring said he has left that option open, but Mizoguchi has not approached him about it.

After a whirlwind year, it appears Mizoguchi’s career has fizzled away.

“This was the only team for me,” he said. “I know they are very mad at me right now, but I just wish they could see where I was coming from and the pain I was in.”