With apologies to Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, I found my way home via Chicago. If you knew that I grew up 10 miles from the UIC campus, and a stone’s throw from the city limits, you might be asking yourself how you can get home without really leaving. Let me give you some background.
I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb adjacent to Chicago. UIC has its earliest roots at Chicago’s Navy Pier and in 1965 the campus moved to its current location on Chicago’s Near West Side. It’s home to 30,000 students, top degree programs, and it’s a part of the University of Illinois System. It’s a significant cultural and educational institution, but in a city the size of Chicago, UIC isn’t always the top story. My college search focused on out-of-state options and the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. Nothing really excited me so I had planned to do the “usual” thing and head south. I even declared my intent to enroll at UIUC and sent in my housing deposit. Then I got a postcard in the mail.
I took an academic tour of the UIC campus and it knocked my socks off. To put it in a single phrase, UIC would be a unique college experience. The student body was diverse. The academic programs were just beginning to gain recognition, but they were solid. I could take a bus, train, or bicycle to any part of a city of 3 million people. I didn’t have to travel far from where I grew up to find my way home.
That was 1995. I’ve lived, studied, and worked at UIC since then. I represented UIC as a gymnast during my undergraduate career and stayed on as a student assistant coach while I finished my degree. Synchronicity struck when my degree was complete and an opportunity opened up to stay on as the assistant coach. Over the next 10 years, I worked in the university’s Office of Publications Services by day and spent the afternoons and evenings in the gym. We used to joke about which job was my primary gig and which was one was moonlighting.
Splitting time between jobs and paying the bills wasn’t easy. I considered moving on more than a few times, but UIC Gymnastics kept calling me home. After 10 years as an assistant, I was elevated to head coach when my boss and mentor, “CJ” Johnson retired. I had (and have) big shoes to fill, and the path was going to get tougher. Upon becoming the head coach, the athletic department removed all scholarships from the men’s gymnastics program.
In many sports, the loss of scholarships might mean the end of a competitive team. It’s a different story in NCAA Gymnastics. Historically, there have been as many as 250 men’s gymnastics programs; today there are 16. This lack of opportunity for the thousands of gymnastics in the United States means that there is no dilution of the country’s top talent. My team pays their own way at UIC, but we continue to have conference champion and NCAA qualifiers. In fact, the only UIC student-athlete, in any sport, to make the NCAA Finals was Asad Jooma.
On August 31, 2018, the “Sword of Damocles” that hangs over the head of every men’s gymnastics program fell. Our team was informed that the 2018-2019 campaign would be our last. UIC Men’s Gymnastics is as old as the school (we’re entering our 71st season). This team is the only one in school history to win an NCAA Championship (twice, in 1978 and 1979, gymnastics won the Division II title). In 1980 UIC Men’s Gymnastics paved the way to Division I for the entire school. All the other sports would join us at the DI level in 1981. Which sport has UIC’s highest Division I finish? How about the most DI All Americans? Yup, men’s gymnastics.
It’s frustrating that a young school, with a limited history, is willing to "throw away" its most historic program. It means that the program’s alumni, including me, have to start finding a different way home, wherever that is.
The gymnastics community is strong and tight-knit. None of us are taking this as a fait accompli. We’re gathering the community on every level. We have a #flipthedecision campaign winding its way through social media. We’re contacting elected representatives and the media. And, of course, the athletic director and university chancellor are getting lots of mail. There’s an irony in all of this. UIC can often get overshadowed in Chicago’s news media, and I’ve longed for a larger profile for the athletic department. I can safely say that I’ve seen more news stories on UIC Athletics in the past 3 weeks than I have ever seen before. It’s a strange way to let the World know what we’ve been up to for the last 70 years.
I don’t know where the road leads from here. I hope the path leads UIC back to its gymnastics teams. I can’t say where I’ll be in a year, but I’m sure I’ll be getting there via Chicago.
FanWord is embarking on a series of stories from UIC’s current team members and other folks whose lives have been positively, and irrevocably, impacted by UIC Gymnastics. As you read what UIC Gymnastics has accomplished and the lives it has touched, I hope you will understand the need for these programs to continue into the future.