Dec. 10, 2009
By Larry Watts
Luke Stannard has no trouble with teammate and good friend Daniel Ribeiro receiving the spotlight as the top performer on the pommel horse in men's collegiate gymnastics. Ribeiro certainly earned the accolade after capturing the NCAA title as a sophomore last spring.
But what Stannard has proved in the past year is when his University of Illinois teammate slips, he is more than capable of delivering in the big arenas. When Ribeiro slipped while defending his 2008 Big Ten title last year, it was Stannard who stepped up a delivered a winning score of 15.275. And when Ribeiro slipped on the second day of the USA Gymnastics Visa Championships this past August, it was Stannard again who came through with gold-medal winning effort of 30.650.
"Absolutely I felt like I came into my own last year," says Stannard as he enters his senior season. "Everything just seemed to come together. Other years, there seemed to be some sort of issue, like an injury or just a mental block, but I couldn't have been happier last year.
"What it all came down to was I learned to be a better competitor. I had trained hard in the past, but it just didn't seem to be enough. It's overcoming the mental part when you get to this level that is the toughest. At lower levels, like high school, you can get it done just by working hard and showing up at the meet. But at this level, when you have the team depending on you and pulling for you so much, it takes a lot more focus, so you have to learn how to lower your arousal level in order to focus on the task at hand."
But the psychology major also admits it certainly doesn't hurt to have a training partner like Ribeiro, who rebounded to win the 2009 NCAA title on the pommel horse, and a coach like former Olympian bronze medalist Justin Spring.
"I wouldn't be as good at the horse as I am today if it wasn't for Dan," he says. "We push each other really hard in the gym. We are never negative toward each other and help each other as much as we can. I hope I have helped him, but I know he has really helped me."
According to Stannard, Ribeiro was a huge favorite to repeat as the Big Ten champion on the pommel horse last year.
"He had a great routine going and had just completed the hard part, which we had talked about before the meet. I figured if he could get through that one part, he'd be golden.
"But we also talked about how the horse was a bit slippery during warmups. When he got to the middle, his hand just slipped and he fell off in a part where he has never fallen before.
"The door was open for me and all I wanted to do was my best and I would be ecstatic," he added. "I knew in my head I was the best horse competitor out there besides him and I definitely felt more inclined to win. I just tried to maintain my focus and probably did my best routine of the year."
A few months later at the USA Championships in Dallas, it was deja vu. Ribeiro had posted a high of 15.900 on the first day of competition. But a slip on the second day resulted in a score of 14.250 and he tumbled to fifth with a two-day total of 30.150.
"Dan was incredible on that first day and I was really proud of him," says Stannard, who posted a 15.150 on the first day. "He's always been the one to show me what the next level (of competition) is like and keep my drive going."
Stannard came back with a score of 15.500 on the second day to narrowly edge Minnesota's Kit Beikmann 30.650-30.600 for the title.
"I was a bit cautious on that first day and not sure why, but I changed my mentality on the second day," Stannard says. "I took a nothing to lose attitude and went all out. Even with my best routine, I knew it would be tough to be in the top three and never even thought I would win. It was pretty incredible to see that score and it didn't fully hit me that I had won until the meet was over."
But in the selection for the USA World Team (10 members) and the five alternate positions, Ribeiro was tabbed as an alternate while Stannard was left on the outside looking in.
"I think the committee saw how well Dan had done on the first day and they wanted to have their best chance at medaling at the World Championships," Stannard says. "The focus now on selecting members of the Olympic team seems to be geared more to all-around competitors rather than specialists, but I did get an invitation to train with the nation's best in Colorado Springs, which was an amazing experience. I wasn't too sour about not making the national team and I'm young (22), so hopefully I can persuade them in the future."
Stannard knows in order to make an impression with the national committee, he will have to pick up still rings after his final year of competition at Illinois is over. He is already one of the Illini's top performers in floor exercise and also competes on high bar, parallel bars and vault.
"It would be a waste for Illinois to try me in rings this year because I haven't done them in three or four years," says the Waukegan native who won the state championship in pommel horse as a senior at Warren Township High School. "I've been gradually adding events ever since I came here and am now up to five.
"Floor is probably my next-best event while the other three are gradually getting better. I don't know if I help the team out much in those events, but I am trying to get my start values up and be more consistent."
Stannard wasn't sure about his future plans until talking things over with rookie head coach Justin Spring, who is taking over the program after three years serving as an assistant coach under Yoshi Hayasaki.
"We're actually more concerned about this year because we think we can win the NCAA title (after finishing fifth last year)," he says. "I didn't know if Justin would encourage me to keep going, but he has been very positive and is thinking about ways to improve my gymnastics after this year.
"Justin may be young, but we take his advice with a lot of credibility. We have all seen how much he has been through and watched him compete in the Olympics on TV. Yoshi brought a lot of wisdom to the team, but gymnastics has changed so much and Justin is more up to date on the newest drills and how the code works. He's very good in helping us out with the mental aspects of gymnastics, especially in high tension situations."
Hesitant to look too far off in the future, Stannard says he would like to come back to Illinois as an assistant coach next year and keep training.
"The Olympics is a distant goal, but I don't want to put it out of the picture," he says. "I'm just going to take things one step at a time. When I was competing at Warren High School, I never saw myself in this position, but I have learned to train for small goals and the things in front of me at the time. I couldn't be happier with where I am at now."