Jack Ohmer | Posted on May 01, 2019
This past weekend was filled with a whirlwind of emotions as the UIC men’s gymnastics team traveled south to the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign for the 2019 National Championship. Marking the end of UIC’s journey through Division 1 gymnastics, as the program will transition to the club level in Fall 2019, Kaleb Booth (Freshman) and Sam Montague (Sophomore) were determined to represent our university colors with pride. Fortunately, since i’m a real Big J now, I was able to secure a press pass to the event (humble brag). With full access to the floor, I was determined to give you readers the story that you deserved. My original intention at this event was to capture a comical story of trash-talking other teams; however, what I uncovered was far more emotional.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Coach Nelson before the start of competition on April 19th:
Montague mentally prepares for his event
Jack Ohmer: What is going to be your biggest focus for this final event as a Division 1 gymnastics team? What areas have you been putting the most focus on in order to prepare for this event? What are going to be your keys to success?
Coach Nelson: Coming into an event like this, if your only measurement of success is winning, you have some reprioritizing to do. All of the athletes here have a very high level of respect for each other because they’ve all gone through the same training and day-to-day routines. In that sense, I think that the main focus for everyone on a stage like this is to leave it all out there and give it everything you’ve got, no matter what may happen. When it comes to preparation, there’s not much of a difference in terms of the National Championship. These athletes are in the gym for 3 hours a day, 12 months a year, 6 out of the 7 days of the week, so when we get to this point in the season, there’s a sense of confidence that has culminated within them. If anything, our lowest intensity workouts have come over the past 2 weeks leading up to this event because they are in as best shape as they can be right now; there isn’t a need to overwork them. The main preparation now comes mentally.
The UIC men’s gymnastics team showing support and love for their competing teammates
Jack Ohmer: What is the shock factor like when the UIC athletes step foot into an arena like this? How do you help curb those nerves as a coach?
Coach Nelson: It’s definitely something that’s newer to both Kaleb and Sam. Obviously, Kaleb is a freshman and Sam didn’t qualify last year, so this is a completely different stage. Thankfully, we were able to have the National Championship at UIC last year so they were able to get a taste of what it’s like. Most of the athletes out here also come from other gymnastics clubs before they enter the collegiate ranks, so they have some idea of how loud it’s going to be. Even though they won’t have their teammates by their side, they’ll have them up in the stands cheering them on.
Most of the fans that come here are also well educated on the sport, so they’re aware that this is UIC’s last event. I’m sure that they’ll be cheering us on as well. What’s even better is that, even though Kaleb and Sam are competing alone, the teams that they rotate with will be pulling for them; in this case, that’s Oklahoma. Other than that, I think that my biggest job as a coach is to help further build their confidence, being alongside to support them as they compete and teaching them different breathing techniques to slow them down.
Sizing up the competition
Jack Ohmer: You’re a former UIC gymnast yourself. How have things changed over the years in terms of preparation, strategy, and overall competition?
Coach Nelson: Sometimes my guys will joke and say, “well, you did gymnastics when it was easy”, and they’re not wrong. The overall competitiveness and quality of gymnastics that you see at a competition like this is head and shoulders over what it used to be. If I was walking on to the team now like I did in 1995, i’d be concerned about whether or not i’d even make the lineup. A lot of the things that these guys do now were very rare 10 years ago. Both Sam and Kaleb will be doing a “double double” in their floor routines, which is more or less the equivalent of what Simone Biles does. When I was competing, that skill level was unheard of. When it comes down to preparation, the training regimen is pretty similar, but the mental fortitude that these guys need to have is much higher. The death-defying stunts that they do on the floor requires them to have much more mental strength. For that, we turn to sports psychologists who help keep their minds in tact.
Jack Ohmer: What has it been like for you as a coach to see upperclassmen grow and develop over the years, and to know that you’ve played a major role in that process?
Coach Nelson: I hope that I have a major role in that process! If you ask what I do for a living, I would refer to it as being an educator. Gymnastics is a gig that allows me to develop young men. What’s most exciting is when we have a competition and you see guys come back out that you coached 10 years before. Having the ability to help them network and further cultivate a dedication to the program along with the sport in general is very satisfying. I think if you ask any of the coaches here, it’s more about watching these kids mature more than it is about them winning. It’s an interesting age group to work with; these kids are kind of fully-formed, but they’re also leaving home for the first time and really testing their boundaries in the real world. Thankfully, you get to be somewhere in-between with them; you get to be a coach as well as a friend. What’s most satisfying is when you see them leave the program and you eventually get to go to their weddings and meet their kids. We’re truly building relationships for life.
Jack Ohmer: What is the future plan for the team moving forward from here? What are your plans after this season concludes?
Coach Nelson: I’ve been very open with the team about moving forward in the near future. If they want to go try and find another school-funded program then that’s completely up to them and I fully support that decision. I can’t fault them for that at all. I’ll try my best to help them out as much as I can. When you do gymnastics it’s a way of life; you don’t just do gymnastics, you are a gymnast. At the end of the day, this is all about representing your school and building bonds with other athletes. Personally, I won’t be employed by the university after the summer, but i’ve committed to helping shepherd the team at the club level. My goal is to open a gym that not only facilitates UIC, but also recreational gymnastics for those who want to engage themselves in the sport. All I know is that UIC gymnastics will continue into their 72nd season and I will find a way to feed my family. It’s going to be exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Boy am I happy that I didn’t show up to the event in a men’s leotard and a video camera like I originally planned…
After the last session on Friday, April 19th, three teams, the top three all-around competitors, and the top three individuals on each event advanced from the pre-qualifying sessions to the finals session. Unfortunately, as Saturday morning approached, neither Booth nor Montague were going to be in contention in their respective individual rotations. Regardless of their scores in the first session, the team decided to stick around to cheer on their fellow collegiate athletes who were making a run for the title, revealing their true characters as young adults. The camaraderie that all of the gymnasts shared with each other was nothing short of spectacular. At first I was blown away by the fact that student athletes would cheer on other schools; however, I eventually understood that that moment in each of their lives meant so much more to them than simply winning.
Although the 2019 National Championship ended in a crushing defeat for the UIC men’s gymnastics team, there is much to be said about their everlasting determination. With the odds stacked against them, coming from a smaller university with less resources and overall program funding, Booth and Montague were able to defy all competitive obstacles, standing tall as the lone wolves in a swarm of BIG 10 athletes. Not only were they able to hold their own on the grand stage alone, but they also did it as young underclassmen, keeping their composure while a crowd of screaming fans surrounded them inside of the State Farm Center. If you ask me, that speaks higher volumes about what their futures have in store for them than anything else.
At the end of competition on Saturday, Stanford stood victorious over the four-time defending champion, Oklahoma, slithering by with less than a 1-point margin. This was their sixth National Championship in program history and their first title since 2011.
The final scores and team standings:
Penn State (399.725)
I wish the best of luck to Coach Nelson and the rest of the UIC men’s gymnastics team in the future. It was truly an amazing experience to have the privilege of being on the floor with them throughout the competition, capturing their heartwarming memories that will last a lifetime.