EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
Last month, my editor asked me to head down to Champaign to check out two Olympic gymnast hopefuls.
“Male gymnasts,” he said, reading my mind.
But with the Summer Games just around the corner and the editor offering real money, off in my Ford Focus I went. I was, I told myself, in search of the Olympic Dream. And so I rumbled down Interstate-55, circumnavigating NATO road closures, headed more or less in the right direction.
The gymnasts in my sights were Paul Ruggeri and C.J. Maestas, who had led Illinois to an NCAA championship in April. They will be in San Jose June 28–30 for the U.S. Olympic Trials with a ticket to London on the line.
Broad-shouldered and big-biceped, I imagined them; beefy All-American boys from prairie towns, painfully focused on a goal that I could no more aspire to than comprehend.
It was a chilling thought that Ruggeri and Maestas—23 and 20, respectively—knew better than I, at 26, what they wanted from the world. That’s why they call them Olympians, I guess. Or hopefuls, anyway.
Their dreams incubated in Kenney Gymansium, a tan brick building on the corner of Wright and Springfield on the Illinois campus. Up two flights of stairs, the smooth sounds of remixed hip-hop escaped from a gym piled high with chalk-dusted equipment.
Ruggeri was stretching, sitting with his back arched over tucked legs. Maestas was on the high bar. He reached the top of his routine, arms and legs extended vertically over the bar, before flying through the air and landing with a satisfying thud.
He then walked over to a video screen to study the replay. A dog ran leashless around the gym, stopping to sniff various gymnasts.
Ruggeri is a Syracuse, N.Y., native. Close-cropped hair and sharp features top his 5-foot-8 frame, among the tallest on the U.S. national gymnastics team. He was a high bar gold medalist at the 2011 Pan American games and won a share of the NCAA vault title this year.
His mother was a gymnast, his father a swimmer. At age 12, he was training 20 hours a week. When he was 15, Ruggeri watched on television as American Paul Hamm won the all-around gymnastics gold medal in 2004 in Athens.
“It was so cool that he was from our country,” Ruggeri recalled.
Away from the gym, Ruggeri is an artist. He paints oils, water colors, and charcoals. He is an amateur photographer, too. His work often focuses on the human form, portraits in particular. “It’s really rewarding to make something look like what you want it to,” Ruggeri said.
Maestas has a boyish face and a fireplug physique. At 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, he has the ideal proportions of a gymnast. He was a bronze medalist in rings at the same Pan Am games and won the individual title at the NCAA championships.
Maestas grew up in Corrales, N.M.—half an hour outside Albuquerque. It was a close-knit town, he said. His grandma lived down the block, most of his friends across the street. By seven, he was training at Gold Cup Gymnastics under Ed Burch, whom Maestas calls the “Bill Belichick of gymnastics.” Everyday at the Albuquerque gym he walked past a wall of framed pictures of Olympians who practiced there.
“They always said they had an empty frame waiting for me,” Maestas said.
As a 4-foot-9 high school freshman weighing 88 pounds, Maestas was benching 200 pounds. The football coaches drooled over him, but he told them he was a gymnast. After his senior year, his grades kept him from college, and Maestas began partying—staying out late and running with a fast crowd. He spent several months couch surfing at friends’ houses, but left his hard-headed adolescence behind during a stint at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs before heading to Champaign.
“I thought I was a badass,” he said. “But I have my head on straight now.”
Both Ruggeri and Maestas were disarmingly friendly with wide smiles and easy laughs—chatty, unfazed and almost unencumbered by the looming Olympic trials, where a lifetime of work, discipline and desire will be on the line in San Jose.
I can’t imagine. I pitched a state playoff game my junior year of high school and got lit up. It happened again my senior year. My coach once filled out a recruiting form for me. In the comments section he wrote: “Gets tight in big situations.”
Ruggeri and Maestas are two of 15 gymnasts on the U.S. national team competing for five spots on the Olympic team (plus anywhere from one to three additional spots for alternates). Two spots will be awarded to the Americans’ top all-around competitors leaving only three for specialists like Ruggeri and Maestas.
Ruggeri has endured four surgeries—one on his ankle, two on his knees and another on his wrist. Maestas has had one. Both are young enough—Maestas, particularly—that they may get another chance at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But with injuries so common…who knows? This could be their only shot.
Neither is worried.
To be a gymnast is to strive to control your body in ways most of us will never understand. The sport begins and ends with the stretching, pushing, and twisting of limbs and torsos—practiced over and over until the movements are refined to a polish.
“My body knows what to do,” said Maestas.
“When you can control the human body,” Ruggeri said, “you feel like you can control anything.”
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BEN STRAUSS, Senior Editor, is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He contributes regularly to The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @bstrauss1.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with anchor photo—the chest in question belongs to University of Illinois gymnast Mike Wilner— courtesy Solomon Lieberman.