Illini gymnasts come from all over the country


By Kieran Hampl

In most sports at Illinois, teams find their success by recruiting top in-state athletes who want to stay at home and play for their state’s team.

The gymnastics teams, on the other hand, differ drastically when looking at the geographic landscape of their current rosters.

Out of the 19 players on the men’s gymnastics roster, only five are from the state of Illinois, which means that more than three-fourths of the team are from out of state. 

The Illinois men’s golf team and football team are both comparable to the gymnastics team in terms of number of out of state athletes on their rosters. Fifty-seven percent of the men’s golf team is from out of state, but because it is a considerably smaller team, only four of the players are from different states, compared to the gymnastics team’s 14. The football team is the only other men’s sports team where more than half of the athletes come from a different state, but only 55 percent are from out of state compared to the gymnastics team’s 73 percent. The women’s gymnastics team is similar, with 12 of 15 athletes coming from outside Illinois.

It might come as a surprise to some that the gymnastics team has such a few number of in-state athletes, but there are a variety of reasons why. 

Only 17 schools in the country sponsor Division I men’s gymnastics programs. Because of this, there is a much smaller selection of schools for male gymnasts to choose from. Comparatively, there are 120 Division I football teams. Of the 17 gymnastics programs throughout the country, seven are Big Ten schools. This helps Illinois bring in top athletes because the competition that it faces week to week appeals to the recruits.

Another reason the gymnastics program is so attractive to athletes from all over the country is because of the cumulative team success. The Illini have won 10 NCAA titles — with the most recent being in 2012 — and have won 25 Big Ten Championships. Penn State has won the most NCAA Championships with 12.

The Illini attribute some of their recruiting success to the academic programs that the University offers. 

“It is no surprise that almost half of our team (are) engineers and so usually intertwine their gymnastics dreams with their life goals,” head coach Justin Spring said. “And we really utilize our tremendous engineering program to justify the large out-of-state tuition cost at the prospect of having an amazing career ahead of you.”

Spring said his team has 6.3 scholarships, so most of his athletes pay their own tuition.

Despite being in a tough conference and having had great success in the past, it is difficult for the coaching staff to bring in top gymnasts every year. Gymnastics is much less popular for younger athletes than sports like basketball, football or baseball. There are fewer recruits out there, and they are not as easy to find because very few high schools have men’s gymnastics teams. 

Despite the difficulties of recruiting and developing relationships with players, which is particularly difficult because of strict NCAA guidelines, the Illini have created strong bonds with recruits.

When he visited Illinois, Redshirt sophomore C.J. Maestas from Corrales, N.M., recalled loving everything from the coaching staff to the older athletes to the trainers. 

“I was swept in here,” Maestas said. “I loved it. The first day I stepped on this campus, I knew this was the place for me, and I knew that if I would’ve made a choice to go anywhere else, I would’ve regretted it.”

He emphasized the importance of trusting the coaching staff in helping him accomplish his goals.

Senior Jordan Valdez had a similar experience when he was being recruited from Cinco Ranch High School in Louisville, Colo.  

“I really meshed well with Justin (Spring) and (assistant coach Ivan Ivankov) as a coaching staff, and, from the day I got here until the day my trip was over, I just felt like I was at home with the team,” Valdez said. “I was very comfortable in the environment.”

The coaching staff isn’t focused on where the recruits come from but in bringing in the best talent and establishing strong bonds with each individual recruit. This system has established Illinois as one of the top gymnastics programs in the nation.

Kieran can be reached at [email protected]