Feb. 11, 2009
By Larry Watts
Paul Ruggeri returned to the University of Illinois campus this week with a gold medal from the prestigious Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas. That accomplishment was enough to earn the sophomore co-gymnast of the week honors from the Big Ten.
But the Manlius, N.Y. native is hardly doing back flips over his performance on the high bar. Test results Monday revealed he also returned to Champaign with a torn meniscus in his left knee, the result of a tough landing on his vault during the first day of competition Friday. He underwent surgery Wednesday morning and is expected to be out of the Fighting Illini lineup for two to four weeks.
"I had only competed in vault two other times (this year) and I decided to go with a two and one-half twist because it had a higher degree of difficulty than what I was used to doing," he says. "I probably should have worked on that a little longer, but I was pretty pumped up for the competition.
"I thought I landed pretty well, but the second I landed I felt a crunch on the outer side of my knee. When I walked away, I knew something was wrong because it really hurt."
The first thought by trainers was bone bruising, but they sent Ruggeri to a sports medicine clinic for an MRI. The results of the MRI arrived Monday.
"It's better to get the surgery done now because of where the tear is it could fold up under my knee and force it to lock," he says. "If my knee locked, I would need immediate surgery and be out much longer. At least this recovery shouldn't be bad and I expect to be back in plenty of time for the Big Ten Championships (April 3-4 in Ann Arbor, Mich.)."
Fortunately, vault was Ruggeri's second event during his first day of competition in Las Vegas. The defending NCAA champion on the high bar had already posted a meet-high 15.350 on his specialty. Combined with his 15.150 during Saturday's second round, he beat out a field that included Olympians Joey Hagerty and Jonathon Horton to claim the gold medal.
However, the injury on vault did force him to end his dream of securing a spot on the Senior National Team. He had to scratch from floor exercise, which took him out of the all-around competition and his quest to land one of the 15 coveted positions on the squad.
"They'll restructure the team again in August (at the Visa Championships in Dallas)," he says. "If I'm healthy, it should be relatively easy (making the team). But if I'm not, it will be problematic."
But in the grand scheme of things for Ruggeri, August is too far off in the future to even discuss. His focus now is on recovery and getting Illinois to the top of the Big Ten ladder and in the top three nationally.
"Sure, I'm probably going to be a little nervous when I go to my first practice in a few weeks," he says. "I'll probably have a target on my back because I'm the defending (NCAA) champion in the high bar, but I just have to stay confident."
Ruggeri's NCAA title was another chapter in the Illini's outstanding success on the high bar while under the national spotlight. Of the Big Ten's 16 national champions in the event, seven have been from Illinois, including two-time winners Justin Spring (2004-06) and Abie Grossfeld (1957-58). Spring, a bronze medalist on the U.S. Olympic team last summer, is currently in his third season as an Illinois assistant coach.
In addition to winning the national high bar crown, Ruggeri also earned All-America honors last year by capturing fifth in both floor exercise and vault. He would like to make All-America in four events this year with hopes of also hitting the top eight in parallel bars.
"I was close last year, but I fell during the team finals," he says. "But the most important thing in my mind is for the team to win the Big Ten title and place in the top three at nationals.
"I really think we're ready for a successful season. We saw all the Big Ten schools, with the exception of Penn State, at the Windy City Invitational last month. Michigan was the only school to beat us and I thought several of our top performers, myself included, had an off day."
The 5-foot-8, 150-pounder rates rings as his weakest event. "I can hold my own on that event as an all-arounder, but I'm pretty skinny," he says. "If I try to get stronger, like some of those ring specialists, I might actually hurt myself."
Majoring in molecular and cellular biology, Ruggeri is still kicking himself for not making Academic All-Big Ten as a freshman. He fell .02 of a point short.
"I'm a dummy for trying to do that major," he says with a laugh. "It's very hard and time-consuming. It can be frustrating at times, but in the end I expect it will be worth it. If I keep the grades up, I'm hoping to get into medical school.
"When I came to Illinois, I thought I was smarter than I was and didn't study as much as I should have. I didn't do badly, but it wasn't well enough. I learned my lesson in that first semester and I should make it (All-Academic) this year. I'm starting to figure out how to do better in these crazy classes."
If he does bounce back and make the Senior National Team in August, Ruggeri isn't allowing himself to think ahead to the Olympic Games in 2012.
"That's always in the back of all gymnasts' minds, but that's way too far away right now," he says. "The first priority will be to stay on the senior squad as long as possible. If I'm still healthy when I'm a senior at Illinois, then I will consider the Olympics. But that will mean putting off graduate school.
"But if I'm not healthy, I'm not going to stick around. Life goes on and there are other things out there other than gymnastics. I'm not going to let it ruin my life if I don't make the Olympic team."