Lukasz Adamczyk in one of his costumes.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Lukasz Adamczyk is a clown.

He’s also a pirate, a joker and a tiger, with Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants and Santa Claus thrown in for good measure. Name a character, and Adamczyk will give it the ol’ college try.

The Illinois-Chicago gymnast and his mother, Dorota Frakowska-Williams, perform at birthday parties, preschools, baptisms, communions and the occasional wedding. Chicago is said to be home to the largest Polish community in the world outside Warsaw, and so the events can be conducted in either English or Polish.

But can he tie a balloon animal while standing on his head? Don’t bet against it. Remember, Adamczyk is a gymnast.

He’s an impressive young man, competing in all-around for UIC and helping out in the family business. He's also carrying a 3.7 GPA while studying for the Medical College Admissions Test in preparation for becoming a general surgeon.

“The way I learned to balance is really just making sure that I stay on top of everything,” Adamczyk said. “So when it’s workout time, it’s workout time. When it’s homework time, it’s homework time. I make sure that whenever I can, I try to get in as much studying as I can here and there.

“I just really make sure to stay on top of myself, doing all my work, getting everything done ahead of time as much as I can. On the weekends, I wake up early to make sure I get all my work done before I go to work. I try to spend as much time as I can to do all the things I need to do.”

Adamczyk was recognized last year as a member of the Elite 89, an award presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative GPA at each of the NCAA’s championship finals sites. The honor made Adamczyk UIC’s highest Division I award winner.

“For me, it was more of a reminder of the work I put in every day, not only in the gym and with the guys as a team, but it showed exactly how much work I have to put into the educational and academic aspect,” he said. “It was really great to be honored as an athlete of that high caliber and as an academic scholar of that caliber.”

The gymnastics squad is essentially a microcosm of the UIC community as a whole. Many are first-generation college students, the first from their families to go further than high school. They speak English, Spanish and Polish in their homes.

Most, like Adamczyk, work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week and are nevertheless very high achievers in the classroom. Approximately 75 percent of its gymnasts are considered walk-ons due to the lack of athletic scholarships for men’s gymnastics.

“Essentially, we are mostly a walk-on program now,” head coach Charley Nelson said. “The state of Illinois and its budget situation has made it so that men’s gymnastics at UIC no longer have athletic scholarships available.

“The success that we have, what we’re really proud of is that all those guys really earn it. They have to balance schedules. They have to work hard at everything they do. They go to school. They work.”

Nelson hasn’t given up hope on the scholarship front.

“In order to really and truly maintain a high-level program and take that next step forward, the reality is that we have to be able to offer scholarships,” he said. “That’s especially the case for talent outside the state of Illinois. We’re looking to build a fund that will allow us to offer scholarships again.”

Eight individual UIC gymnasts are competing at the national championships this weekend, more than any other school. They took a variety of paths to get to the national championships at Penn State. Justin Maxwell, for instance, is the very first “full” product of the Chicago Park District’s gymnastics program to compete in the NCAA and to also qualify for the championships.

There are currently eight different locations in the Chicago area that offer gymnastics training at both the beginning and advanced levels. Maxwell was spotted in a tumbling class as a kindergartner and recommended for the CPD program, which since the early 1990s has exposed the sport to racial and social demographics it might not ordinarily have reached.

Maxwell has been a competitive gymnast ever since.

“I didn’t have anyone to look up to growing up, as far as gymnasts who came through my program to compete at the college level,” Maxwell said. “I pretty much just had to learn how to keep fighting and to definitely persevere. Being a college gymnast was a possibility for me and I was able to outlast a lot of the other competitors and make it here at UIC.”

And then there’s Bryan Pusateri, a product of Stevenson High School in Lake Forest, Ill. If there’s a typical route to college gymnastics, it’s usually through the club level. Not Pusateri.

“High school gymnastics, the atmosphere’s a lot more like college,” Pusateri began. “The skills and the ability of high-school athletes is nowhere near college, but the atmosphere, the team and how to lead by example is there. It’s so much an individual sport. In high school, the focus is as a team. A lot of club kids, they don’t ever get a chance to be a part of that until college.”