NORMAN, Okla. -- Coach Justin Spring is worried. Even as he watched his Illinois squad compete throughout three days at the NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championships, he is concerned about the future of the program.
It's not because the Fighting Illini is losing a ton of talent. In fact, he had one of the youngest teams at the tournament.What weighs heavy on Springs' mind is how he will replace senior C.J. Maestas, who competed in his final meet as a member of the Illini on Saturday.
“I'm in dismay that that was his last competition for our athletes,” Spring said. “I don't think they truly understand what he brought to the table in that respect. It's easy to look at him as a number on these events. But what are you going to do when you don't have that fight and that energy that passion in the gym every day? I worry most about that.”
Maestas finished his college career by winning a national championship on the high bar. His score of 15.125 was enough to edge out Stanford's Akash Modi (15.100).
“It's such an honor to actually come out with that title at the end,” Maestas said. “I kept giving hugs to my coach and he just told me to go out with a bang no matter what. Just hearing those words, going through all the ups and down that I went through this year and my past year, this is the way I wanted to go out.”
Maestas finished second on the still rings and fifth on the floor.
However, the individual hardware was bittersweet for Maestas. He says he has been a team player since he arrived at Illinois and the fact they didn't win the team title was hard for him to accept.
“At first it was a little bit hard,” Maestas said. “We didn't make team finals. That's all I care about is the team. I was really upset. But you have to move forward. I hope the younger guys learned. I am just so proud and honored to wear the 'I' on my chest. I am so proud to be an Illini. Represent what we're all about.”
Maestas was part of the Illini squad that won the national championship in 2012 at Oklahoma. Then he was a freshman on a veteran laden team.
This time around, Maestas was the one the young gymnasts looked up to and that's a role he has taken very seriously.
“I came here as a freshman and I was fortunate enough to win a team championship,” Maestas said. “And I won a Big Ten championship with my team. I hope that all my hard work and my leadership as a captain really branches out to the rest of the guys and they come in and win theirs. I just hope the younger guys really learned lesson from that. I'm an alum now and they have many more miles left on their college careers. I really hope that they just don't say it in the gym, they actually make changes and do it. I am just so proud of them. Call them my brothers, my little guys. I am just so proud to be a part of this team.”
While Maestas' college career is done, his gymnastics career isn't. He will be heading out to the Olympic training center this summer in hopes of making the next national team.
“My career is still going,” Maestas said. “Now it's time to go to the Olympic training center and go for that dream I've had since I was a kid.”
But before he can do that, Maestas has some business he has to take care of first. He will be graduating from Illinois in May, which is an even bigger dream for him and his entire family.
“I didn't even think I would make it to college,” Maestas said. “I will be the first one to graduate in my family. I come from a very different background in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am just so blessed to be part of this team, to represent my family and everyone back home and everything I stand for.”