From Big Ten To Beijing

May 28, 2008

by Jeff Smith

Last week some of the nation's top male gymnasts traveled to Houston, Texas for the VISA Championships with the hopes of earning an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials. Of the 14 selected to the U.S. Senior National Team, six have Big Ten ties, and of those six, three captured event titles.

Illinois' Justin Spring, Minnesota's Guillermo Alvarez, Ohio State's Raj Bhavsar and Paul Hamm, and Penn State's Kevin Tan all earned spots on the U.S. National Team. Morgan Hamm also made the team and is mentored along with his twin brother Paul by current Buckeye head coach Miles Avery. Following last week's competition, Avery was honored by his peers as the 2008 USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year.

It is no surprise that Big Ten gymnastics has had such a significant impression on this year's National Team as the conference has ruled the collegiate landscape over the years. The Big Ten has claimed 21 all-time NCAA team titles, including two in the past five years, both by Penn State. The 2004 and 2007 NCAA champion Nittany Lions fell short of a repeat this year by placing fourth in the annual event.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is that the Big Ten has had at least two teams place in the top five at nationals in each of the last 13 years dating back to 1995. In fact, the conference had four squads finish among the top five in both 2003 and 2004. In 2008, Illinois placed third and Penn State was fourth, led by NCAA all-around champion Casey Sandy.

The Big Ten's successful past has long transferred to national and international competition, proven once again this past weekend.

Tan, an assistant coach for the Nittany Lions, captured his third straight still rings title at the VISA Championships and cemented his place among the nation's elite. He recorded a score of 16.650 on day one of competition and answered with a 16.700 in day two to compile a winning total of 33.350. His score was the highest total posted by any athlete in any event at the VISA Championships and was good enough for an impressive 1.5 -point advantage over the second-place finisher.



In addition to his win on the still rings, Tan placed fourth in the parallel bars (30.550), fifth in the high bar (14.750) and sixth in the pommel horse (28.950).

When Tan was competing at Penn State, he was a five-time All-American and an NCAA still rings champion in 2003 and 2004. He was a three-time Big Ten rings champion as well as a parallel bar event winner.

Illinois' Spring, who was chronicled on this past January, earned the parallel bars title at the VISA Championships with a winning score of 30.900. The victory marked his third national title, as he also placed first on the high bar in 2005 and 2007.

Following the event, Spring, the 2006 NCAA Nissen-Emery Award winner, noted how much it meant to him to win a national title on something other than the high bar.

"It feels great to take the title on parallel bars," he said. "It has been an event that has eluded me at the national championships in the past, so it was one of my goals to go out and win the title."

Spring also tied for sixth on the vault with a score of 31.950.

The Buckeyes also made waves last weekend at the VISA Championships as Morgan Hamm earned his third floor exercise title under Avery's watch with a score of 31.350. Brother Paul held a significant lead in the all-around competition, but broke his hand during the parallel bars routine. Despite the injury, for which he has already had surgery, Hamm was named to the 14-member Senior National team. Back in Athens at the 2004 Summer Games, Paul Hamm captured the all-around competition, becoming the only American man in Olympic history to win the gold medal in that event.

Bhavsar, who helped Ohio State to the 2001 NCAA title and then responded a year later to win the NCAA all-around individual crown, earned a spot on the U.S. Senior National squad with a fifth-place result in the all-around (178.250).

Finishing two spots back from Bhavsar in the all-around was former Golden Gopher Alvarez. The 2005 NCAA Nissen-Emery Award winner placed in the top 15 in each event, highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the pommel horse and a seventh-place result in the floor exercise.

Another former Big Ten gymnast was celebrated over the weekend for the culmination of his career.

Blaine Wilson, who was attempting to make an unprecedented fourth Olympic Games, dropped out of the VISA Championships following two rotations and immediately announced his retirement from the sport. A native of Columbus and a volunteer assistant coach for the Buckeyes during the 2008 season, Wilson was a three-time Olympian, six-time NCAA champion, and an 11-time Big Ten gold medalist. The 1995, 1996 and 1997 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year also helped the Buckeyes to the 1996 NCAA crown.

Avery desperately wanted to see Wilson complete the VISA Championships and be rewarded with a spot on the team. He also said following the event that he was humbled with being named the 2008 USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year.

"It's a real honor when your peers vote on an award like this," Avery said. "It is humbling to have them recognize the hard work I've put in and shows that your guys are doing well."

Avery will now help prepare the 14 gymnasts for the U.S. Olympic Trials, which will be held in Philadelphia on June 19-22. The six-member U.S. Olympic team will be chosen based on the efforts of each gymnast at both the VISA Championships and the Olympic Trials.

And if history stays true to form, the Big Ten should be well represented when the United States takes to the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, August 8-24.