Olympic dream falls short

_Editor’s note: This is the 10th and final part of a series highlighting Illinois gymnast Paul Ruggeri’s road to potentially qualifying for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Ruggeri was not named to the U.S. Olympic team._

If you search for Paul Ruggeri on the Internet, the most recent news result which pops up is from July 1. A two-week activity drought may not seem significant, but when this former Illini gymnast has appeared in a news article nearly every day for approximately three months, it’s rather substantial.

The most recent information available is one simple fact: Ruggeri, star gymnast on the Illinois national championship team, did not receive a spot on the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team as one of the five athletes or three alternates.

Ruggeri was one of many children who dreamed of being an Olympian. His dream began at the age of 7 and he dedicated 16 years of his life to that goal. While it was a long and all-encompassing journey, it essentially came down to one moment, a 10-minute meeting during the morning on Sunday, July 1 when the roster was announced .

“You had your ideas, you had it all plotted out in your head,” Ruggeri said. “But this was when it became real.”

*—*

Only 15 hours earlier, Ruggeri was relaxed, calm and confident. He was ready to celebrate the conclusion of the selection process, including the Visa Championships June 7-10 and Olympic Trials June 29-July 1.

He said he performed at his highest potential, finishing sixth in the all-around with top-three finishes on high bar and floor.

“I could never have imagined that I was going to come to trials and hit 12-for-12,” Ruggeri said on June 30. “It’s what I wanted to do and what I always work for, but that it happened, it’s just surreal.

“There’s guys in front of me who might fit in better for the make-up of the team,” he added. “But I think I proved worthy of an alternate spot.”

He said then that it was all up to the selection committee, all he could do was sit back and pray.

*—*

Ruggeri followed the six other grim-faced gymnasts out of the room after the team was announced, leaving the eight Olympians to celebrate.

“It was really just like the two groups went in complete polar opposite directions,” Ruggeri said.

He said he was the first athlete passed over, which stings. A lot.

“What are you supposed to do when you did everything you could and it just wasn’t good enough?” he added.

The first people he called were his parents, who already knew the news. They offered supportive advice, starting the chorus Ruggeri would hear constantly in the following days, weeks and months.

“‘It was amazing to watch you,’ ‘You were the highlight of the competition,’ ‘You are going to do great things,’” people would tell him in a phone call, text, or write on his Facebook wall.

“‘I’m proud of you,’ ‘I was pulling for you,’ ‘You were robbed,’ ‘No matter what, you are amazing,’ ‘You are and always will be a champion,’” others preached.

Ruggeri knew that he didn’t want to withdraw from the world and that it was only through the support of his family, friends and coaches that he could get through the heartbreaking defeat.

“It means a lot to know that even when things don’t work out you have family and friends who will support you and help you,” Ruggeri said.

He took a break from the support the first day, relaxing at a beach in Santa Cruz with the other gymnasts who didn’t make the team.

That was only after an hour-long conversation with a sports psychologist, a man sent by USA Gymnastics “to clean up the mess they made,” Ruggeri said.

*—*

It took a little while for Ruggeri to open up, as anyone could expect.

He didn’t respond at all to requests for interviews the day he found out he didn’t receive a spot on the team. It took nearly a week and a half to get in contact with him, someone who is normally incredibly receptive to the media.

He usually likes every supportive Facebook post he receives and this time he didn’t like any. He typically updates his Facebook or Twitter after his competition, but it took nearly 27 hours after the announcement was made for him to post an Instagram update which read, “Thanks for all the words everyone. I am proud of myself I just didn’t fit into the team. Proud to have been there with my brothers @maestas26 and sender. #illinipride”

It’s hard for Ruggeri to find words to describe his experience. He’s slow with his word choices, sounding forced and diplomatic rather than letting loose.

He throws unfortunate, upsetting, disappointing, unfair, life-changing, shocking, spark-setting and dramatic all out there but none of those do his feeling justice.

“What do I call it, I don’t know I don’t have a word for it,” Ruggeri said. “What can I really say?”

He’s still a representative for USA Gymnastics, and can represent the national team on international assignments until February. It’s important that he maintains his reputation as a poised and mature gymnast.

“I feel sorry for all the people who don’t find something they’re passionate about,” Ruggeri said. “I am happier to have gone through all the highs and lows than to never have a passion in life.”

*—*

The sudden free time redefined Ruggeri’s summer. There is no during or after the Olympics for him. He won’t have any commitments of post-games tours, media appearances, or celebrations, engagements he made sure to leave his summer free for.

Ruggeri took a week-long break from Champaign, life and gymnastics and drove to North Carolina to vacation on a lake. He continued home to New York to visit with his family — simple pleasures he never had much time for.

He tries not to think too much about everything, but he can’t help it.

Ruggeri decided not to answer if he would do anything differently if he could go back in time. He declined to say if he would watch the Olympics or not. He hesitated to reply on what he felt about the selection process.

“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,” Ruggeri said last October. “I need to put it all out there.”

But he says he has no regrets, that he put it all out there, tried his best and didn’t make it.

“I do think about it because it is a pretty big disappointment,” Ruggeri said. “I worked my whole life for this goal and to come up short it’s going to be hard to deal with, but I’m going to be fine. I just have to be successful in a different way.”

*—*

Now there’s the question of the future, where Ruggeri is at a loss, though the necessity of a decision looms in front of him.

He graduated in May from Illinois with a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology, his athletic eligibility expired. He could keep training in Champaign or move to the Olympic Training Center or train at a gym in New York, all the while advancing his education or working. He might give up gymnastics altogether and go to graduate school, or join Cirque Du Soleli or get a real job.

“I’ve been to a lot of places, I’ve been successful in competitions,” Ruggeri said. “I don’t know how much else there is to accomplish in gymnastics.”

“I don’t know how much more there is for me to do, especially with this team, this group of gymnasts,” he added. “It’s hard for me to stand out because there are other people who are capable of keeping up with me.”

He used to joke with his dad about gymnasts who were to old to train. They laughed about it then, saying Ruggeri would have moved on to something better.

Now the idea seems less-than-crazy, although the next Olympics is a long ways away. He’ll be 27 then, which isn’t ancient for a gymnast, but much older than the norm.

There’s competitions in the meantime, like individual world championships this fall and team world championships next year.

“I’m not looking to quit right now,” Ruggeri said, becoming fired up when he discusses the newfound motivation from everybody who didn’t make the team. “You know what, those guys on the national team better watch out because all those people that didn’t make it, they’re going to continue training and they’re pretty lit up.”

Ten days after his crushing rejection, Ruggeri returned to the gym. It felt right for him to go back because despite everything, that is where he feels at home.

He went in and had fun, he played on the women’s vault and the balance beam and he did some floor work, cardio and conditioning. He’s not looking to get out of shape right now because he knows that time away could cost him.

The search results may diminish and his time in the limelight may have passed, but that won’t stop Ruggeri.

“I always thought my big success was going to be the Olympics,” Ruggeri said. “Now it will have to be something else.”