Wes Haagensen placed second at the NCAA All-Around last season.
July 31, 2007
The Big Ten Network is set to launch on Aug. 30 providing fans of its 11 schools conference programming 24 hours a day/seven days per week. In addition to expanding coverage of football and basketball, Illini fans will get a chance to see some of the stars of Olympic sports that are making headlines. This is the third in a series of profile athletes you have likely read about, but perhaps never had a chance to see their talents.
Perhaps no other Big Ten sport showcases national- and international-level competitors than men's gymnastics. When Illini coach Yoshi Hayasaki heads to Thailand as a U.S. assistant at the World University games next month, all five team members will be from Big Ten schools, including two from Illinois. It's quite possible the next time the U.S. travels across the Pacific - for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, several Big Ten gymnasts, including former Illini Justin Spring, could be representing their country.
Four of the top six teams at the NCAA Championship a year ago were from the Big Ten, including national champion Penn State. "The Big Ten Conference is where the competition is and where more and more of the top athletes are going," noted Hayasaki.
Senior Wes Haagensen, from Belleville, Ill., hopes to make his mark on the international circuit and help the Illini to their first national championship team title since 1989. Haagensen will join Spring and current teammates Tyler Yamauchi and Chris Silcox at the Visa USA Championships Aug. 15-16 in San Jose, Calif. Haagensen followed Spring as the Big Ten all-round champion in 2007.
Haagensen has been competing in gymnastics since age seven, when his grandparents enrolled him in his first classes. He has progressed through the junior ranks, placing second in the all-around at the 2002 Junior Pan-American Championships and claiming the 2003 Junior Olympics Class 1 title.
"We first noticed him as a junior gymnast competing in the same Winter Cup as we competed," Hayasaki said. "It is great to have gymnasts who can do all events well. When he came to Illinois he was an excellent young gymnast. Now Wesley is developing into one of the top up-and-coming gymnasts who are competing for a spot on the U.S. team."
Haagensen made his mark early with the Illini, earning Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2005 and topping Spring's all-round school record with a 55.950 in just his second collegiate event. In 2006, he earned three All-America honors by placing third in the parallel bars, fifth in floor exercise and fourth in the all-around.
"He came to Illinois as a promising freshman who had done pretty well in the junior division," said Hayasaki. "During his sophomore year he made progress, but was competing in the shadow of Justin Spring. Last year he really emerged for us, duplicating Justin's feat of winning the Big Ten all-around championship."
Haagensen was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Year last season and tied for second in the NCAA all-around with a score of 55.000. In addition to competing in his sport, the accounting major has plans to attend law school and become a sports agent.
"Wesley loves to compete and loves to challenge himself," Hayasaki said. "He's a workhorse in the gym. When he sets a goal, whether it be for the team or individually, he goes out there with a strong will to achieve it. In addition, he is a great team worker with his team goals coming before his individual goals."
The ultimate team goal is to win a national title. That seems realistic for the Illini, who return virtually everyone from a squad that placed fifth last season. The 2007 campaign was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the Illini emerged as one of the six teams to advance to the NCAA team finals, edging No. 1 Ohio State in their qualifying group.
"Last year was one the most gratifying seasons because we didn't come in with high expectations," Hayasaki said. "To place in the top six simply shows the kind of character we have on this team."
With the exception of classes, the summer is as busy as ever for the Illinois athletes. "Being a top gymnast requires year-round training, especially for a top all-around like Wes. It's a chance to learn new skills, refine them and then compete against the top athletes in the country and the world. He is focusing on more refining new skills and upgrading his degree of difficulty."
Silcox and Yamauchi will represent the United States at the World University Games Aug. 8-9 in Bangkok, Thailand, before joining Spring and Haagensen in San Jose. The top athletes qualify for the World Championships Sept. 9 in Stuttgart, Germany. Hayasaki believes that although Spring is not a shoe-in for the 2008 Olympic team, the Pan-American gold medalist on the parallel bars is certainly one of the top three or four U.S. gymnastics currently competing. He feels if Haagensen continues to progress, he also could challenge for a spot at the U.S. Olympic Trials next June in Philadelphia.
After winning the 2006 Nissen-Emery Award, which goes to the top senior male gymnast in the country, Spring joined the Illini coaching staff last season and is working with Hayasaki and assistant coach Jon Valdez in preparing to make the U.S. Olympic team.
"Having Justin around has raised the bar for everybody," Hayasaki said. "To have someone competing at the highest level not just in America, but in the world, and then to have Wesley coming along next in line as an elite U.S. gymnast and to see Tyler and Chris get a chance to compete internationally for the first time gives us a great shot to accomplish our goals a team."
The Big Ten Network will give viewers a chance to follow their progress leading up to the NCAA Championships in April.