Four Illini gymnasts vying for spots on Team USA

After this weekend, 25 American gymnasts will have their Olympic dreams deferred for at least another four years. Fifteen gymnasts will be named to the U.S. Senior National Team at the 2012 VISA Championships in St. Louis June 7-10.

Those 15 will advance to the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif., from June 28- July 1, when five gymnasts and as many as three alternates will then be named to represent Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics.

Four Illini gymnasts – recent graduate Paul Ruggeri, junior Yoshi Mori, freshman C.J. Maestas and volunteer assistant coach David Sender – are vying for spots on the roster.

“It’s a big show,” said Maestas, who was named Big Ten gymnast of the year. “The 2012 Olympic journey has finally reached its climax.”

The VISA Championships are divided into two days of competition. The men compete Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and the finals are Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

The top six all-around competitors and the top four gymnasts in national team points automatically earn national team spots.

National team points are awarded based on finishes in each event on both days of competition. The national team coordinator selects one gymnast, and the men’s program committee makes the final four selections.

The Olympic team members are announced after trials. The roster for the Olympic Team is decided based on performances at both VISA Championships and the Olympic Trials.

“The goal is to hit 12-for-12,” Ruggeri said. “It’s something I haven’t done before and something I need to do now.”

The workouts have been nonstop for the Illini gymnasts, who immediately returned to the gym after winning Illinois’ first NCAA championship in 23 years in April. The gymnasts have been practicing as usual, with minimal changes. Some practices were moved to earlier in the day to prepare themselves for Saturday’s early competition.

“We haven’t really had much of a break at all yet,” Ruggeri said. “I think it’s been the best for us in terms of our gymnastics. We’re just going to have so much confidence going into this that it’s just going to be a head game from here on out.”

Most of their routines will be the same as during the collegiate season, though some of the difficulties have changed. Ruggeri decided to take some skills out of his floor and high bar routines so he would be more confident, while Mori added difficulty to his high bar routine.

Ruggeri, Maestas and Sender are all strong contenders for the Olympic team, as they have all been on the national team in the past and have lengthy resumes in international competition.

“It’s unlikely, but we’re hoping we all make the team,” Maestas said. “That would be a real storybook plot line.”

Mori is the least experienced of the group and has never been on the national team before.

“I want to give a wild show,” Mori said. “Considering I’m the underdog, I want to prove myself.”

The competition will be an exciting showing of American gymnastics, Maestas said. He expects the crowd to be nearly sold out and is looking forward to putting on a show and progressing toward the ultimate goal of an Olympic team slot.

“This is what it all comes down to,” Maestas said before catching himself. “Well, not really. It comes down to a lot more than just this. But this is the next big step we have to make it through.”