Illini of the Week Feb. 18: Bobby Baker continues to make the changes necessary to succeed

Illinois’ Bobby Baker performs a routine on the pommel horse during the match against Minnesota at Huff Hall on Saturday.

By Daniel Collins

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down each week 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. 

Illinois men’s gymnastics head coach Justin Spring and his staff now laugh about how they first considered freshman Bobby Baker an “up in the air” recruit. The coaches weren’t sure if they even wanted Baker.

Once Baker arrived at Illinois, the coaching staff adjusted Baker’s gymnastics to focus more on hitting routines than attempting big tricks.

So far, the freshman gymnast has shown enough consistency to be a frequent selection to compete for the all-around title, but there are still more improvements to be made.

“His routines are so streamline right now. He’s going to get so much better,” Spring said. “His ability to learn quickly is one of his strengths. He’s going to continue to grow to be one of the best Illinois gymnasts of all-time.”

Besides being talented, Baker possesses a high level of maturity and leadership, according to his teammates and coaches.

On Saturday, when C.J. Maestas was unable to lead the team out to the floor at Huff Hall for its meet against Penn State due to strep throat, Baker was the one to lead the team out.

“You always have to speak to maturity and focusing on the details,” Spring said. “You can’t drive that into freshmen enough because they’re still taking it all in. Bobby’s done taking it all in. He’s processing and he’s making dramatic changes to the point, where he’s executing his gymnastics like one of the best athletes on the team.” 

Baker clinched the all-around title in the meet with a score of 89.550, which is the third-highest score in team history and the nation this season. He also set a career-high in the pommel horse and high bar event with scores of 14.800 and 14.500, respectively. In terms of all six events he competed in, Baker finished with a top-five score in all of them.

Even with all his success, there was a time when Baker almost walked away from the sport. Body aches, time consumption and interest in other sports are what drew him into hiatus.

“I took a little bit of time off at one point and got bored, so I got back into it,” Baker said.

Until his gymnastics days conclude, there is one person that he will always compete in memory of: his mother.

Shortly after introducing Baker to gymnastics at the age of 6, his mother lost her fight with breast cancer.  

When asked how much of his gymnastics he dedicates to his mother Baker replied, “All of it.”

“She was the one that wanted me in this sport, so since I stuck with it, everything I do is for her,” he said. “I want to make her proud.”

Due to his efforts, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the fourth-straight time — his fifth overall — to go along with his first Big Ten Gymnast of the Week award.   

On the year, he has won a pair of titles in parallel bars, vault and all-around in addition to one on both the floor exercise and pommel horse.

The next step in Baker’s career will be to earn a spot on the senior U.S. national team. He’ll be competing for a spot this weekend at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas. 

“Making the senior national team for the United States is my main priority at the moment,” Baker said. “That means you’re at the top.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter