NORMAN, Okla. – Unlike most gymnastics meets, the individual finals at the Men’s Gymnastics Championship had room for a spotlight on Saturday night in Norman.
One athlete, one event at a time.
So when Illinois’ Paul Ruggeri got the draw for his two events that he qualified for, he had a choice to make. He’d be the 10th and final competitor on the vault after a turn on the parallel bars.
The fifth-year senior was staring at Stanford’s Eddie Penev at the top of the leader board with a 15.500. It’d take a career-best score to at least tie and share the individual title.
It was time to break out his most difficult act.
“I’m lucky,” Ruggeri said. “I’ve only landed that vault twice in my life. The other was at the Big Ten event finals this year and then tonight.”
Sticking the landing meant Ruggeri had tied Penev. The two shared the vault individual national title – the fourth in his career.
And that’s Paul Ruggeri in a nutshell. Just when you least expect him to do something, he does it. His head coach Justin Spring has seen it for five years.
“He knew he had to do one of the most difficult vaults that were done here all day,” Spring said. “And he went up, and stuck it cold. It was unbelievable and he would do that. He’s done that so many times throughout his career.”
But he wasn’t happy. Ruggeri had finished second in the parallel bars and didn’t qualify for the other events. Even though the Illini captured their first team title since 1989 the night before.
Perfection wasn’t achieved.
“He’s got this competitive fire,” Spring said, “it’s an undying pursuit of perfection that is going to be there. That was exemplified throughout his five years at Illinois.”
The brilliant career of Ruggeri wasn’t easy. He certainly made it look that way his freshman year in 2008, winning the NCAA individual championship in high bar.
Not bad for someone who came in without a full scholarship. How about an encore?
The Manlius, N.Y. native followed that with two more individual national titles his sophomore year – on that pesky parallel bar and another high bar.
Then there were some bumps.
Life gets in the way some times. Especially junior year for most college students. There were thoughts about wanting to go to medical school. But gymnastics squashed any more of those. He’d done too well to stop that focus and drive.
“I never expected any of this to happen to me,” Ruggeri said. “I never expected to be an athlete at this level, let alone the individual national titles, team national title, national team member. I just look back and feel so lucky to be given the opportunity to be at Illinois. I worked my butt off and have a fire that I have no idea where it came from.”
His career highlights are littered with first-place finishes, gold, silver and bronze medals, national team member. Accolade after accolade.
So when Ruggeri suffered an ankle injury in 2011 during the Winter Cup which put an end to his year, there was a talk with his coaches. They sat down, made a plan. The end goal? More national titles.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Ruggeri said. “They told me they could redshirt me and come back next year. I’m just so lucky to be here with this whole team and to have contributed to this championship. I’m just ecstatic.”
Norman, Okla. treated Ruggeri and his Illini teammates well this weekend. Focus now shifts across the Atlantic Ocean, to London – the site of the 2012 Olympics.
Ruggeri will have a shot at making the Olympic squad. That’s after a grueling training and competition schedule which will pick back up as soon as the team gets back to Champaign.
They never take a day off. There are things to work on. His all-around routine. His floor exercise – Ruggeri’s favorite event.
“My floor has been so up and down,” Ruggeri said. “I had two good sets at the Big Ten’s. I was in Germany before and had three falls on the same routine. That’s something I have to look at. I’ve never been this crazy, skilled, high start-value gymnast until this year. So I need to evaluate it all.”
You’ll find Ruggeri at the Olympic Training Center in a week for the last training with the national team. Then there’s the Visa Championships at the beginning of June followed by the Olympic trials at the end of that month. And then who knows, if the dream year of 2012 continues, you’ll see him on television from across the pond.
“I hope he gets the opportunity to pursue his Olympic dreams that he so desperately wants,” Spring said. “I hope Illinois is an amazing, lasting memory for him. Because he will be for us.”