By Logan Hanson
The University of Illinois will host the NCAA Men’s National Collegiate Gymnastics Championships in the State Farm Center this weekend with the No. 4 Illini set to compete in the Session II qualifier on Friday. This will mark the first time that Illinois will host the Men’s gymnastics championships since they did so in 2004 when the State Farm Center was known as Assembly Hall. One member of that team, All-Around gymnast Adam Pummer, remembers the expectations for the team going into the season with the team generating momentum the year prior.
“My freshmen year we made the second day for the first time in years,” said Pummer who was a sophomore during the 2004 season, “There were lots of expectations, a lot of hype and energy.”
The team also had a lot of energy in knowing that they were to host the national championships later that year. The Illini wanted to put on a memorable performance for their home crowd supporters.
“To do it in front of the home town crowd was just an added bonus we were excited for,” Pummer said.
The head coach of the 2004 team Yoshi Hayasaki and his coaching staff were equally thrilled at the prospect of hosting the national championships. Sensing an opportunity to make the University of Illinois stand out in its hosting abilities, Hayasaki pushed for the competition to be done on a podium, an elevated competition floor that was typically used in the Olympics or world championships, which was a unique practice in collegiate competition at the time.
“If I am going to host the national championships, I wanted to do something very special,” Hayasaki said. “I felt like not just to host a normal or regular national championships that was hosted by other schools, I wanted to better and I wanted to do something very special and better than what they had done in the past.”
Although the team did not end up winning the championships that season, they did finish in the top three and had a couple of national champion individuals. Even though it wasn’t the team championship they had strived for, it was still an accomplishment that the team was proud of.
“It was great we wanted to win obviously at home which has always been the goal,” Hayasaki said. “But to be able to finish in the top three was something we felt very proud [about] and to have a national champion…we had some good showings and it was very important to us to have good showings by our athletes.”
One of the national champions from that team was current Illini men’s gymnastics head coach Justin Spring who won on high bar that season, his first national title. Although he does not think he put a lot of emphasis on the gravity of being able to compete for a championship in front of a home crowd, Spring does want his current team to realize how special of a position they are in.
“I just don’t think I fully understood how amazing it was to compete in front of a home crowd,” Spring said. “I think my guys do now I think because I speak to it all the time they have that kind of awareness.”
The 2004 championships were also a critical moment for Spring having won his first national championship as an individual, one of four he would win as a member of the Illini. Spring now sees that 2004 performance as one that helped propel his career forward, a career that included performing on the international and Olympic stages.
“I think it all kind of converged together at that one big pivotal moment,” Spring said. “I showed up, did my routine and then all of a sudden I’m the national champion and it was in front of the crowd and I think the gravity of the situation really hit me.”
For this year, Spring is expecting a competitive environment during the championships. He knows that his team will bring a lot of energy into the building when it is their time to compete and he is hopeful that the rest of the State Farm Center will be able to match that energy as well.
“I know the NCAA championships for men’s gymnastics is always pretty intense so we are going to bring the energy regardless,” Spring said. “I hope that State Farm is somewhat filled and can match and mirror that energy…we have a good shot to bring home some hardware so it would be really cool to do it in front of a present home crowd.”
Led by current Illinois head coach Justin Spring, the 2004 Illini finished third in front of the home crowd at the NCAA Championships.
With a renewed opportunity to win a national championship in front of the home crowd this season, the Illini are striving to achieve that goal. The alumni from the 2004 team still follow the program and have been impressed with their performance. All of the alumni look forward to seeing how the team will do over the weekend and if they will be able to accomplish the ultimate goal they fell just short of achieving.
“It’s encouraging to see how good they are. Whenever you go into nationals it’s anyone’s game so to be that highly ranked and at home you have a lot going good for you,” Pummer said.
“They have been doing very well this year and certainly we are interested. We are all going to be attending the national championships coming up,” Hayasaki said. “It’s been always in the back of our mind to see how Justin and his teams are doing.”
What exactly would winning a championship at home mean for the current team and all of the Illini that came before them? According to the alumni, everything.
“It’s near and dear to every alumni’s heart. If they win, we all win together,” Pummer said. “Once you’re part of the team, you are always part of the team.”
The No. 4 Illini will compete in Session II of the national championships on Friday night at 7 p.m. CT in the State Farm Center. Illinois will be competing against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 Penn State, No. 8 Iowa, No. 9 Ohio State and No. 12 Army for the opportunity to compete in the Championship Session on Saturday at 6 p.m. CT.