Far From Home

Jan. 13, 2009

By Larry Watts Contributor, BigTen.org

If there's one thing Diego Mercado-Austin does not want to hear about at this time of the year, it's the weather report from San Diego.

"That makes me very upset when people tell me about the weather in San Diego," the University of Iowa senior says. "I've been in Iowa City for four years now and it's always a struggle to get used to the cold and snow here."

A native of Tijuana, Mexico, where he got his start in gymnastics, Mercado-Austin really took off in the sport when he joined a club at the Mission Valley YMCA just across the border in San Diego. He placed second all-around in the 2000 Mexican National Championships, competed in the World Championships in 2003, and was the Mexican national champion on pommel horse, second in floor exercise and parallel bars and third in vault in 2005.

But when it came time to make a decision about his gymnastics future, the recruiting process was about as cold as the cornfields in Iowa during the middle of winter. Finally, his club coach, Steve Butcher, placed a call to his friend Tom Dunn, who was the head coach at the University of Iowa.

"It was very, very late in the recruiting process when I heard from Steve," Dunn says. "I really appreciate Steve's input and he sent me videotape of Diego. We prefer to get out to see as many gymnasts as possible, but sometimes we have to rely on videotape and we were very impressed with what we saw of Diego."

"Coach Butcher told me all about Iowa and how it would be the best place for me to go," Mercado-Austin says. "He knew the coaches there and he knew they would take care of me both inside and outside of the gym. Iowa also had two former Russian gymnasts (Alex Kolyvanov and Dmitri Trouch) on the staff and I had always wanted to be coached by Russians."

Without even taking a visit to Iowa City, Mercado-Austin accepted the offer to become a Hawkeye. The first time he set foot on the Iowa campus was the day he enrolled in classes in the fall of 2005.

 

 

Mercado-Austin made an immediate impact with the Hawkeyes as they reached the NCAA Championships during his freshman season. The business major has since been twice named to the Academic All-Big Ten squad and advanced to the NCAA finals on still rings as a junior, when he placed 17th.

"Once I got to Iowa, the coaches and members of the team all made me feel like I was part of the family," Mercado-Austin says. "That was a great feeling because I knew I wouldn't be able to get home very often. Even though this is my fourth year, I still struggle a bit with being so far from home.

"It was a big change for me coming from San Diego. Iowa City is such a smaller community, but the people here are very friendly. I don't think I'll ever get used to cold weather though."

Mercado-Austin had made such an impression that Dunn broke a long tradition and named co-captains this season, selecting the senior along with junior Jonathan Buese.

"My primary job is to help the other gymnasts as much as possible every day in the gym," Mercado-Austin says. "First, I have to set the example with my own workout routines and then I have to push the others as much as possible to do their very best."

Although he competed all-around in Mexico, Mercado-Austin has abandoned the high bar and competes in five events for the Hawkeyes. He considers the rings to be his best event because it's a chance to show off his upper body strength.

"Rings is all about strength and swing," he says. "I am more of a strength person. I'll usually do four strength moves during a routine while the average gymnast usually does two."

"Diego isn't a very flashy gymnast, but he is very clean and consistent with his routines," Dunn says. "He is very powerful in both the rings and floor exercise. We didn't need him in high bar when he first came here because we had plenty of depth in that event, but now we lack the depth and it's a little difficult to have him pick up high bar again at this stage."

Dunn believes Mercado-Austin could have competed for the Mexican Olympic team in Beijing this summer, but the Mexican officials were very strict about their requirements.

"They wanted him to attend training camps in Mexico, but Diego couldn't afford to take off all that time from school," the Iowa coach says. "He tried to work something out with them, where he could participate in some camps around here, but they refused to bend."

Mercado-Austin is hoping to end his Iowa career the same way it started -- by helping the Hawkeyes reach the NCAA Championships.

"I don't just want to see us make finals, but I want to see us there for the second day," he says. "As for me, I would like to make All-America (top eight) on rings."

After graduation, Mercado-Austin plans to move back to San Diego, where he has a girlfriend attending school.

"I've been talking to a company in Iowa which sells power tools and I'd be interested in working for them as a sales agent in Mexico," he says. "After all, the idea of going into business is to make money and I'm ready to make money.

"If I land the right job, I'm hoping to work during the day and help coach at a friend's gymnastics club in the evenings. I would really enjoy coaching little kids and showing them everything I went through as a young gymnast."