April 8, 2011
By Larry Watts
To have a dream of becoming a professional athlete some day is not uncommon for a youngster when first setting out in a sport. Advancing age and other interests has a way of separating those dreams from reality.
But since he first competed as a club gymnast at the age of 5, Jordan Valdez has held onto his dream. Now an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois, the Louisville, Colo. native strongly believes his quest to compete in the Olympics is within his grasp.
"I was around 3 or 4 when I first got involved in gymnastics," he says. "My mom was working in the children's care area at a recreation center and she would take me to work with her. When she wanted to get rid of me for an hour, so I could release some energy, she enrolled me a gym program at the center.
"That coach had me doing stuff kids my age wouldn't even think of doing, like front flips off springboards and the trampoline. He came back and told my mom she had better get me into a real gymnastics program where I could learn a lot because he thought I had a lot of potential."
Valdez was placed in Gymnastics Unlimited, where he remained for four years. But when his coach had a disagreement with the owner and left, Valdez switched to Xtreme Altitude Gymnasts through his junior year of high school.
Under the tutelage of Rob Barké, Valdez took first place in the all-around at the 2009 national qualifier and competed in the Junior Visa Championships. Competing in his first national meet, Valdez wound up taking first on the high bar, fifth on parallel bars, sixth in all-around and seventh on vault. He earned a spot on the junior national team.
"I was really nervous," he said about his first national exposure. "I had seen all these guys who were competing there and knew all their names, but I really never imagined myself on their level. That weekend really got me to change my mind-set in what I had to do in order to achieve my goals."
But Valdez was also faced with a tough decision. Barké had accepted a job working with the girls at Champion Gymnastics Academy in Houston, Texas. Valdez could remain in Colorado to finish his senior year of high school or go live and train with his coach in Houston.
He elected to go with his coach to Champion, where he would also work with Hideo Mizoguchi, whose son Tyler is a junior gymnast for the Illini. His work with Mizoguchi taught Valdez a greater sense of self-awareness.
"He basically told me if I can't believe in myself to be whatever level I wanted to be, I would never achieve it," Valdez says. "I worked extremely hard in Houston to improve my skills, so that when I went back to the Visa Championships the following summer I would not only maintain my status as a junior national team member but I would also put up good enough scores to compete on an international level."
In his return to the Junior Visa Championships this summer, Valdez secured the gold medal on the parallel bars while taking third on pommel horse and fourths in all-around and floor exercise. Although he failed to defend his high bar title because of a mistake on his release move, Valdez was happy with is improvement.
"When I went back, I knew this was another stepping stone to making the Olympic team," he says. "I knew all the big names who were competing and I had become friends with many of them over the course of the year. I was more relaxed this time and I think I proved I had improved my skill level in pommel, floor and vault. I had a lot more depth in all my events."
As a member of the junior national team, he got his first taste of international experience in December when he attends a weeklong training camp with five other U.S. team members in Tokyo. During their stay, the U.S. squad trained with Japanese team members in a relaxed atmosphere with no judging. During the course of the upcoming year, Valdez could be selected to perform in some international meets.
Valdez strongly believes another stepping stone to his Olympic dream was achieved when he decided to join the Illinois gymnastics team as a walk-on this year. In the process, he turned down a scholarship from another Big Ten school.
"When I was checking out colleges where I might end up, I was looking at some of the guys they already had," he says. "At Illinois, (seven-time All-American) Paul Ruggeri and Tyler (Mizoguchi) were on the senior national team plus they had (two-time All-American) Dan Ribeiro. I came here for a visit, hung out with the guys, watched them in competition and I just knew I wanted to spend my time with them as teammates."
Valdez is especially keeping a close eye on Ruggeri, the defending NCAA champion on high bar and parallel bars, during practices. The two gymnasts are both in the same strength program, a greater chance for Valdez to listen and learn.
"I really look up to him because he's doing what I want to be doing in a couple of years," Valdez says. "Basically what I have been learning from him is you have to be willing to put in the extra time in the gym because if you don't take more time to focus on the minute details you are not going to have what it takes to reach the elite level in this sport."
Another big selling point Illinois had to offer Valdez was the fact Justin Spring is heading into his second year as associate head coach. Spring is a four-time NCAA champion and was a key factor in the United States winning the bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics.
"He (Spring) knows what it takes to get to the elite level," Valdez says. "Learning from a coach who has actually competed in the Olympics is a good fit for me and I feel like there is a lot I can learn from him. He knows physically what it takes and is extremely knowledgeable about different skills and techniques."
In his rookie season, Valdez cracked the veteran Illini lineup in two events - the parallel bars and high bar - while also making a number of appearances on the vault. Valdez did well enough to make the individual event finals at the Big Ten Championships and was the Illini's Sportsmanship Award honoree.
"I hope to compete in parallel bars and high bar," he said prior to the season. "I think my difficulty will be at the point where I will have little deductions. I'm also looking at floor and vault, but those events are a little farther away and I'm still working on harder skills. I still have new skills to learn on pommel and increase my strength for rings."
Valdez also got his first crack at landing a berth on the senior national team at the Winter Cup (Feb. 3-5) in Las Vegas and advanced to the event finals, placing fifth on high bar and 19th on all-around. Valdez will have another chance as well at the Senior Visa Championships in August.
"This is what I have been training for," he says. "The juniors and seniors got together on the second day of competition at the Visa Championships last August. I felt like I held my own and hit most of my routines. I enjoyed myself with all the TV cameras rolling."
Through his own experience working with a physical therapist and massage therapist, Valdez has already decided he wants to major in kinesiology at Illinois.
"Based on my sophomore and junior years in high school, when I had some injuries that prevented me from learning new skills, I started seeing a physical therapist and massage therapist every other week," he says. "I was eventually able to compete at the highest level without pain or medication, so I have been inspired to help other athletes in similar situations. I want to be able to give back to other athletes who are going through what I went through."