When it looked like the individual resume of senior Luke Vexler could not boast anything new, the leader of the men’s gymnastics team proved he still had uncharted territory to conquer.
The senior, who played a major role in Temple’s Eastern College Athletic Conference Championship last year, returned from Las Vegas, Nev., Monday after participating in the Winter Cup Challenge – a two-day competition that helps determine who will be part of the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team and represent the United States in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Also representing Temple at the Winter Cup over the weekend was senior Sterling Kramer and junior John Vogtman.
Though none of the three were able to land atop the rankings as they are so accustomed to doing on the collegiate level, they knew they were going into a tough challenge.
“The guys competing in this meet are the best in the country,” said Vexler, who narrowly missed making it to the final round. “Really, we were surrounded with the best gymnasts in the world.”
And how different was this event from what he faces with Temple?
“It’s not a team competition [in such an event],” Vexler said. “It was only three of us [in Vegas]. [With Temple], it is much easier because you have all your teammates cheering for you and supporting you.”
It was not the first time Kramer or Vogtman participated in this competition, so the two really knew what kind of talent they were set to face.
“It’s always exciting,” said Kramer, who has participated the last four years. “The biggest difference [between the Winter Cup and in collegiate competition] is the judging. It’s a lot stricter [at the Winter Cup], but a lot is the same.”
“It was really exciting [and] really fun,” Vogtman agreed. “It was a cool meet to compete in.”
To put in perspective how difficult the competition was, the first-place winner of the event was someone who has already won Olympic medals – Paul Hamm. The 25-year-old from Wisconsin won one gold and two silver medals in Athens during the 2004 Olympics.
Aside from the difficult opponents and the tough judging, the travel, change in time zones, and the distractions of the highly-populated city did not help the athletes in the event.
“[Traveling] definitely plays a role,” Vexler said. “We train so much, and to come here and feel the three-hour time difference, it doesn’t help.
“But it’s really the hotels that mess with your mind,” he added. “Being in [Las Vegas], it’s very hard to focus. But in the grand scheme, these are minor things.”
It was not a completely fun experience for the three Owls, though.
Vogtman, who was named the NCAA Division I Gymnast of the Week for last week’s play, injured his knee during Saturday’s competition.
“He might be able to get back at the end of the season,” Vexler said about his teammate.
“We have a strong team, so I’m not too worried,” Vogtman said about Temple’s squad. “It’s pretty disappointing, [but] I’m trying to stay optimistic. I’m going to try and get back from this injury.”
Kramer definitely left Vegas with his head up, ready to finish his last run with the Owls.
“We’re going to rally together and push each other,” he said. “[The Winter Cup] will be a great motivation to train harder.”
And for Vexler, he already has a goal in mind after graduating.
“I’ve competed in nationals before,” he said. “But this was the first time I’ve experienced [the Winter Cup Challenge]. I’m looking to [go] back next year and try again.”
Jeff Appelblatt can be reached at email@example.com.