Travis Romagnoli--The Passionate Perfectionist
March 30, 2000
by Nolan Nawrocki
The parallel bars are spread shoulder-width apart and stand slightly more than six feet high. Long before he ever grasps those bars to perform, Travis Romagnoli envisions how he will execute his first move. He goes through a mental checklist, reminding himself what he needs to do after each twist and turn. He visualizes himself sitting on the parallel bars, each leg resting on a bar while his arms support the rest of his body behind him. His elbows are locked, triceps flexed, and he begins to swing his legs from his knees. After simultaneously swinging each leg three times, he picks his legs up and brings them inside the bars, holding them perfectly still, and shifts all his weight onto his arms. He must remember to continue breathing in this strenuous position so his face doesn't turn red and give the appearance that he is struggling.
Gymnastics is a sport judged by the beauty of its appearance. Judges downgrade gymnasts for the slightest of hesitations, for the smallest bend in an arm, or for any sign that a gymnast is struggling. Having to contend with the keenest of eyes, Travis spends most of his time in practice perfecting his technique. He never thought of himself as a perfectionist, but that is exactly what the sport of gymnastics has molded him to be. He practices religiously until he gets it right, regardless of how many hours go by in the gym or how many injuries he sustains.
"I have a plan for each day," Travis said. "I know what I have to work on. If it takes to 6, when practice ends, or 6:30, I stay and do it."
When Travis first began practicing gymnastics, every move was awkward. Even with a spotter to protect him, he was tentative and fearful that he would fall on his head. Years later, he had even more reason to be fearful. While practicing on the parallel bars, Travis was swinging full circle around the bars and preparing for his dismount when he lost his grip. Suspended upside down, he came crashing to the ground and landed on his head. While luckily escaping with only a bruised neck, he learned a lesson: "Take nothing for granted. You have to be focused every time you perform."
"It took me a bit of time to recover psychologically," Travis said. "My neck was so sore that I couldn't do anything for about two weeks."
A lack of focus was not the only reason he fell, however. He was practicing routines that he wasn't ready to perform physically.
"I should have laid back, made it easier," he says in retrospection. "I was practicing without a plan, trying to cram in a lot of difficult moves into my routine without having the time to do it right."
Since coming to Illinois, Travis has found a new way of practicing. He sits down with his coaches every week and they devise a plan for Travis together. They create a specific plan for Travis to follow taking into account upcoming meets, injuries, and most importantly, any slight flaw in technique or weakness that needs to be addressed.
"Talent sometimes takes you a far ways, but technique is what makes a gymnast complete," Travis says. "Different techniques fit different people, and you just have to decide which technique you're most comfortable with and execute it. If a move isn't clean, judges will deduct points."
After winning the NCAA championship as an all-around performer in 1998, the highest individual honor in collegiate gymnastics, Travis was set to defend his crown a year later. He never got the chance, though. He broke his hand days before the Big Ten Championships and was forced to sit out the rest of the season. It was the biggest setback of his career. He had to wear a cast that forced him out of practice for six weeks. In the process, he lost a lot of upper body strength.
The first time Travis was able to use both his hands again, he felt hesitant. Fear began creeping into his mind like it did after the day he landed on his head. His wrist had become weak in its cast. "It has taken persistence, confidence, and a tireless work ethic to get back to where he was," says men's gymnastics coach Yoshi Hayasaki. These are just some of the traits that a gymnast must have to compete at the highest level. Hayasaki, a former two-time NCAA all-around champion and U.S. National Champion, believes a world-class gymnast must be flexible, powerful and strong, speedy and agile, coordinated and skillful. "But above all," he says, "a gymnast must have a passion or desire to be the greatest and have a dogged determination to coincide with that passion."
The day after Travis had his cast removed, he immediately took to the gym. He ascended the stairs of Kenney Gym to the second floor, where the team practices. Before he set foot in the gym, he stopped and bowed as he does every time he enters the gym. Kenney Gym is his temple, and gymnastics is his religion. The genuflection is a routine that Coach Hayasaki picked up in Japan in his earliest days of coaching. Before the Japanese gymnasts would enter the gym, they would bow out of respect for the gym and the equipment as a sign that they were committing themselves completely to their sport. Coach Hayasaki assimilated the practice and incorporated it into his own philosophy of coaching. When Travis steps into the gym, he bows symbolically to remind himself that no matter how bad his day has gone so far, it is starting fresh in the gym.
After bowing, Travis begins his stretching routine to maintain his flexibility. After stretching his muscles and ligaments for almost 30 minutes, he performs every exercise he can to gain back his strength. He grasps the p-bars, pulls his body up so that his elbows are bent at a ninety-degree angle, and starts dipping up and down - a movement called bent-arm, straight-body presses. On these same bars, he also performs leg presses, pike presses, and straddle presses. He continues to mold and shape his body day after day, conditioning his body two, three, four hours straight. Outside of practice, he pays close attention to the food that fuels his body. He rarely eats McDonald's, Burger King, or any greasy fast food that might detract from his performance. He enjoys having an occasional beer with his buddies, but he avidly avoids alcohol during the season. "I've seen the negative effects alcohol has on the body and on people," he said. "It's not worth it - especially when you are trying to be competitive at this level."
Almost a year after he broke his hand, Travis is finally regaining his form. He grasps the rings on the pommel horse and starts whipping his body around it, revealing every muscle in his stomach. His chest looks as if it is chiseled out of stone. His body and face have the appearance of Sylvester Stallone in his prime. Travis finally feels like he's finding the consistency that helped him claim his national championship two years ago. Many gymnasts easily become irritated and flustered with their performances, cursing at themselves and the world for their flawed technique. On the pommel horse, Travis remains calm and in control.
"When I was in practicing in Canada, I used to get frustrated all the time, and it would show," he said. "When I came here, I decided to take a new approach - a more logical approach. When things go wrong, I sit back and see what went wrong. Even if I can't correct an error right away, it's the persistence - it's more important to just keep going after it."
While Coach Hayasaki offers encouragement and coaching tips to other gymnasts missing their routines, he responds differently to Travis. Hayasaki constantly weaves and bobs his head, almost like a boxer, trying to watch Travis' performance from many different angles at the same time. After Travis dismounts the pommel horse, he looks to his coach for an appraisal of his effort. With a slight smile coming over his face, Hayasaki nods in admiration. Sometimes he claps or offers a few words of praise.
Travis's performance has moved his teammates as well. Fellow gymnast Greg Cook still remembers the first time he stepped into Kenney Gym. "When I first came to the university and saw him practicing, I just thought geeeeeeeeez, this guy is amazing," Cook said. "His technique is flawless. Watching him and how rigorous he trains motivated me from that day on to work harder."
Romagnoli's quest for excellence is profound in the gym. He likes to experiment with different moves to see what works for him, but the variety of moves that he performs is not what makes him excel. Perfecting every minute detail in his routine is what matters to judges. So for Travis, the key is to be consistent. "With consistency comes confidence and when I'm confident, it seems like I'm in slow motion. I can see everything clearly, and my body responds the way I want it to."
Before exiting the gym, Travis bows as he did when he came in, telling himself to leave his performance in the gym until the next day. No matter how good or bad things may have gone in the gym, he does not think about it once he enters the stairwell to depart. He goes home, rests his exhausted body, and relaxes until the next day, when he will come back to the gym and try to grab hold of gymnastics' grueling ideal - perfection.