David Sender put off vet school at Illinois to make one last run at the Olympics. (John Cheng/USAGym.org)
June 27, 2012
By John Lock, Illinois Sports Information
David Sender knows how the Olympics can take over your life. He's let it happen twice now. Sender is one of four current Illini attempting to make the London Olympics, along with fellow gymnasts C.J. Maestas and Paul Ruggeri, and track star Andrew Riley.
Sender's athletic career has been in flux since 2008. He was a student-athlete at Stanford, where he got his bachelor's degree and competed for the Cardinal gymnastics team, and has since gone from a full-time athlete to a full-time student and back. The constants: an unnamed pet goldfish and the goal to compete in the Olympics.
Sender, who is now a volunteer assistant coach for Justin Spring and the national champion Fighting Illini men's gymnastics team, won the all-around at the Visa Championships in 2008 and was on track to make Team USA that year before an ankle injury at the Olympic Trials ended the dream. He competed for one more year, when he didn't have to worry about pleasing the crowds or the judges.
"That was a very liberating year for me," Sender said. "I could do gymnastics just for me because I enjoyed it."
Two days after he finished competing in 2009, he packed his 10-year-old goldfish and the rest of his belongings and drove to Champaign to attend the Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He was a retired athlete and full-time student for exactly one year. But the Olympic itch came back. He called Illinois gymnastics head coach Justin Spring and told him he wanted to start training for the 2012 Olympics. He put vet school on hold and started training full-time for a chance at the squad, and intends to return to school this fall regardless of whether he makes it to London or not.
"If I had any chance at all to make the team, I thought I owed it to myself to explore that opportunity," Sender said.
He is the senior member of a trio of Illini gymnasts hoping to make the 2012 Olympic team. Freshman C.J. Maestas and senior Paul Ruggeri also are being trained by Spring and attempting to make the team. The trio has completed the Visa Championships and will compete at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif., on June 28 through June 30.
After Illinois won this year's NCAA men's gymnastics title, the three Olympic hopefuls were the only gymnasts on campus for a while. They bonded in their daily training, allowing the Olympic dream to take over their lives. Spring, who was a 2008 Olympian before becoming head coach of the Illini in 2010, worked with all three on the mental toughness needed to make the team.
"When you're at this level, the mental aspect is so big," Spring said. "When you're training, it's 80 percent physical and 20 percent mental. When you're competing, those numbers flip."
Spring, who helped Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, knows the pressure of seeking an Olympic spot, so he tries to calm the nerves of the three athletes he's training. Even though all three gymnasts are at different points in their careers--Sender is 26, Ruggeri 23, and Maestas just finished his freshman year--Spring's message is the same to all three: go all-out and relax.
"These guys aren't shoe-ins," Spring said. "They can't just have a good, consistent day. They need to wow the crowd and judges. They can really feel comfortable in knowing that they have to go all out. If it doesn't work out, you did everything you could."
Another Illini Olympic hopeful, Andrew Riley, has come a long way, both literally and figuratively. In 2008, Riley was on way from his home country of Jamaica to Illinois to compete as a decathlete. Four years later, he has emerged as the nation's top collegiate sprinter and a favorite to make the Jamaican national team, which is renowned for its sprinters, in the 110m hurdles.
Riley capped his outstanding Illini career this spring with national championships in both the 100-meter dash and 110-meter hurdles--something that no male athlete had accomplished in the same year in NCAA history.
Riley has to post a top-three time in the Jamaican trials on June 30 to earn his trip to the London Olympics, something he did last year at the World trials and is expected to do again this year (he has the second-fastest time entering the Trials). But Riley's coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey, isn't taking anything for granted.
"It doesn't matter where you're at," Buford-Bailey said. "You've got to compete at the highest level. It's all about the race in front of you."
Riley is not the first Olympic hopeful coached by Buford-Bailey, who is a three-time Olympian herself as a hurdler. She knows the long road ahead and the need to be able to focus hardest in the biggest races, something Riley hasn't had trouble with in the past. He is a four-time national champion, a 12-time All-American and a 12-time Big Ten champion.
"He's proven that when it matters, he gets it done," Buford-Bailey said.
An Olympic berth would cap an incredible Illini career for Riley. He has been named the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's National Track Athlete of the Year, the Big Ten Track Athlete of the Year and earned the Dike Eddleman Award as the top male athlete at Illinois in both 2011 and 2012. He is also a finalist for the Bowerman Award, given to the top male track and field athlete in the country.
"I don't want to say that he's the best ever at Illinois because we've had some great ones, like Craig Virgin," Buford-Bailey said. "But he's certainly one of the all-time greats to ever come through here."
Several Former Illini Also Have Sights Set on London 2012
Maestas, Riley, Ruggeri and Sender aren't the only Fighting Illini with their sights set on London. Several former Illini are still making waves on the international scene and hope to represent their countries at the 2012 Olympics.
Two former Illini have already punched their tickets to London (as of June 26). Former Illini soccer star Emily Zurrer (2005-08) will represent Canada at the Olympics for the second time in her career, while former Illini track & field thrower Gia Lewis-Smallwood (1998-2001) has made her first Olympic team. She'll represent Team USA in the discus throw. In addition, former Illini great and current Illinois women's track & field coach Tonja Buford-Bailey will coach the sprinters and hurdlers for Team USA in London.
Two former Illini basketball stars could be taking the court in London, as the United States' Deron Williams (2003-05) and Great Britain's Robert Archibald (1999-2002) are both in their respective country's national team pools. A pair of former Illini hurdlers also are in the mix to make Canada's Olympic team. Perdita Felicien (2000-03) and Nikkita Holder (2007-10) will both run in the 100m hurdles at Canada's Olympic Trials on June 29 and 30.