This is a guest column by former Cornell Big Red gymnast Karen Braun, whose passion for and experience in the sport of gymnastics compel her to share her insights on our Fighting Illini. Enjoy!
The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s gymnasts cruised past the University of Illinois-Chicago to victory in their first competition this past weekend, which market the first full week of NCAA competition for the men’s teams. Although the season just began, the Illini are off to a great start with standout athletes already making their mark.
Unlike NCAA women’s gymnastics, NCAA men’s gymnastics uses the Olympic scoring system (FIG Code Of Points) for each event. Like women’s, though, six gymnasts compete at each event with the top five scores counting (midway through February, this changes to 5/5 for some reason). The events are floor, vault, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and high bar. Under the Olympic scoring system, two scores are given: an Execution score that starts at 10 for every routine and falls with every imperfection, and a Difficulty score that starts at 0 and increases with every element of a routine. These are added for a total score that is in theory limitless, but usually tops out around 16 at the Olympic level. Only sixteen teams sponsor NCAA Men’s Gymnastics.
Junior Michael Paradise is ranked No. 1 on pommel horse and senior Alex Diab tops the rankings on still rings after scoring a 15.05 last weekend, the only 15-plus score recorded in men’s competition thus far. Diab is the reigning national champion in the still rings.
Illinois graduated one of its top contributors last year, all-around competitor Bobby Baker, but the team is set to benefit from newcomer Michael Fletcher out of Nashua, New Hampshire. The freshman tallied the fifth-highest all around in the nation last weekend.
The Illini’s vault squad is ranked No. 1 in the nation ahead of top-ranked Oklahoma and Stanford. The team is also ranked 9th on Floor, 4th on pommel horse, 3rd on still rings, and 6th in both the parallel bars and high bar after the first full week of competition.
The Fighting Illini, who won the 2012 national championship — their first since 1989 — may have trouble bringing home the title in 2019 without serious missteps from powerhouses Oklahoma and Stanford.
The Sooners will return most of their routines from their 2018 championship squad, as they look to capture a fifth straight NCAA title. The Cardinal graduated their top two contributors from last year, but four different freshmen saw action last weekend including Georgia-native Brody Malone, ranked 7th in the all-around.
The two schools are tied at No. 1 with scores of 411.25 last week. Penn State holds the third spot with 407.5, and Illinois sits in fourth with a 404.550. Big Ten rivals Nebraska and Minnesota are not far behind and round out the early favorites for the six spots in NCAA team finals on April 20. The Illini will have home-field advantage as the competition will take place at the State Farm Center.
Illinois’ next test will be the Windy City Invitational on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. CT against Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, and host University of Illinois-Chicago.
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