Jordan Valdez’s journey to a national championship

By Kieran Hampl

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

 For Jordan Valdez, a trip to the NCAA individual finals was nothing out of the ordinary, having placed fifth on the high bar as a sophomore. But standing atop the podium this season signified a year of redemption for Valdez, coming off of a lost season due to injury.

Valdez had a strong start to his career with 33 top-five finishes and individual titles throughout his first two seasons as an Illini. Still, he said it came as a surprise to him that he did so well during the NCAA finals as a sophomore.

Poised for a national title run during his junior season in 2013, Valdez sprained his ankle, sidelining him for the rest of the year and causing him to redshirt. It was a devastating injury for Valdez, and it was difficult to fathom that his season was over so quickly.

“It was hard, a lot of the things that I took for granted kind of just disappeared,” Valdez said. “I wasn’t doing gymnastics, I came in everyday just to throw a bag of ice on my foot and wiggle it.”

The recovery process was not an easy one, and he is still hindered by his ankle injury today. 

“For the first five weeks that I had been doing rehab, I couldn’t point or flex my foot more than a few degrees. I just didn’t have the mobility back and from there it just got harder and harder,” Valdez said.

At one point Valdez was unsure if he would ever be able to compete again because of his injury.

Even though he was forced to take precaution all season, he slowly got back into the swing of things. His ankle limited him to less repetition than his teammates. That forced him to make sure the few reps he got were perfect.

Despite stalling his progression over the summer, Valdez’s ankle injury didn’t affect his high expectations for the upcoming season. He wanted to return to All-American status, but this time in parallel bar as well. In high bar he wasn’t just looking for fifth place again, this year he wanted to be a national champion.

Besides battling ankle problems throughout the season, the biggest challenge for Valdez was maintaining the consistency of his routine. There was a weekend when he remembers not being able to hit any of his routines, causing him to lose a lot of his confidence.

Despite the challenges Valdez faced, he kept reminding himself of his ultimate goal — to be a national champion. 

Out of 13 high bar routines this season, Valdez scored higher than 15 on nine of his attempts, and he only fell below 13 one time. To put this into perspective, in the NCAA individual finals only three other gymnasts achieved a high bar score higher than 15. 

Heading into last weekend’s national championships, he was ranked No. 1 in the country on high bar, but taking that for granted wasn’t an option; he knew he still had a long way to go.

After the first night of competition, Valdez was sitting in first in the high bar standings with a 15.200. But the only thing the score meant was that he would be one of 10 athletes competing for a national championship the next day. 

On Saturday, while the other gymnasts were doing their routines on high bar, Valdez tried not to pay attention.

“If I watch a lot of the guys that I am competing against it makes me nervous and I learned that the best way to do it is to just let it happen,” Valdez said. 

Heading up to the bar, he took a deep breath and tried to tune out the Michigan fans ecstatic over the parallel bar performance of their own Sam Mikulak.

“To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what it felt like from a first-person point of view because I don’t really entirely remember it,” Valdez said. “It just kind of went to muscle memory and the routine did itself.”

When he landed, Valdez remembers feeling shocked and knowing just how good of a routine he put up. After bowing to the judges he ran around the entire gymnasium with a huge smile on his face to his teammates who were in a frenzy.

“Even though we were in Michigan and they had a huge home crowd, I only heard our fans and my team, that was it,” Valdez said. 

Unlike his sophomore season, there was no surprise in Valdez’s mind when he was announced as the high bar national champion. He finished the end of the regular season ranked first and held onto that spot until the end of the tournament. 

Valdez knew the road wouldn’t be easy to get back to what he once dreamed of accomplishing. But as he stood on the podium Saturday, his ankle was strong enough to support the weight of his body and the trophy in his hands. 

Kieran can be reached at [email protected]