Illini of the Week April 15: C.J. Maestas

After completing his final routine for the Illinois men’s gymnastics team Saturday at the NCAA Championships in Norman, Oklahoma, senior C.J. Maestas was lifted up in celebration by assistant coach Ivan Ivankov.

The routine had won him the national high bar title.

While he is an all-around competitor, the high bar event isn’t one Maestas is usually associated with.

“If you asked me going into Nationals to choose an event C.J. will win, high bar would’ve been, maybe, the fourth one I (picked),” head coach Justin Spring said.

This is the second-straight year an Illini gymnast was awarded the high bar title. Senior Jordan Valdez won it last season but didn’t compete in this year’s final due to a dislocated shoulder he suffered in preliminaries.

Valdez is the team’s high bar specialist and often instructs the other gymnasts on their routines. Even though he didn’t want to take much credit for Maestas’ performance, he said he noticed some improvements in the redshirt’s routine that the two have been working on.

Prior to competing on the high bar, Maestas participated in two consecutive days of all-around competition, and his teammates and coaches noticed the physical toll his body was taking. His will to win is one of the attributes that is often recognized amongst the team.

“He could win anything because he’s such a fighter,” Spring said. “He has the ability to game-up and hit great routines in situations that matter most.”

The individual title is the second of Maestas’ career: he won the national still ring title in 2012. He also garnered four All-American honors over the weekend.

“It was for the team, because I wasn’t by myself out there,” Maestas said of his title. “That’s why I do so well at gymnastics. I’m not only representing myself but the people around me who got me to this point.”

Seeing as Illinois failed to qualify for the team finals for the first time since 2002, Maestas’ title win was the brightest moment of the Illini’s weekend. It was also the last time the team will have his help in tough times. The redshirt is graduating at semester’s end instead of applying for another year of eligibility.

But he believes his decision works out best for his gymnastics future.

“I was not even thinking about coming to college,” Maestas said. “School wasn’t my strong point. I kind of struggled a little bit.”

“I would’ve had to apply to grad school, which is a great thing to do, but to get to the Olympics you need to put gymnastics at the forefront. Making that decision was hard because I care about this team.”

Besides the dedication needed inside the classroom, living in a college town brings about other distractions that aren’t school-related.

“In the middle of the season, when our team has to stay in, you hear frats, sororities and random people walking up and down the street yelling and screaming about how they’re going out,” Valdez said. “It’s not (the lifestyle) for framing Olympic-caliber gymnastics.”

The decision took him roughly one year to make. Naturally, he spent a lot of time discussing the matter with his coaches and teammates.

Even though Spring made it known to the national champion that he would appreciate having him back for another year, he agreed with Maestas’ decision to graduate.

“We had to do what was best for his career,” Spring said. “That’s what I’m committed to as a coach.”

Upon graduation, Maestas will live the next year and a half in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the Olympic Training Center to qualify for a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games.

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