Stunning individual performances by two of Temple’s most reliable performers represented the squad last weekend at the NCAA Men’s National Gymnastics Championships in Champaign, Ill.
Junior Nyika White, who placed third last year on rings, improved a spot by placing second on the event. Senior Theo Maes placed third on vault in his final collegiate meet.
“Both Theo and Nyika were walk-ons, so this achievement says a lot about them,” said coach Fred Turoff, who made the trip along with eight Temple gymnasts who qualified to compete individually at the Championships.
While White entered the weekend as one of the favorites to medal, Maes was attempting a difficult comeback after missing all of last season with a broken ankle. A combination of factors had Maes nervous prior to his turn on vault. Despite executing a combination that had been attempted just once in the history of the sport, a poor score on the floor exercise, as well as the prominence of the competition, magnified the fact that this was his last meet as an Owl.
“We got [to Champaign] for two days of warm-up and the kid couldn’t vault for his life,” said senior co-captain Toros Torcomian, who competed on rings but did not place. “He was falling all over the place. You would’ve never known he was one of the best in the country. Then [the first day of the competition], he comes out on the first vault and he sticks it, then the second day he stuck it again and got an almost perfect score. It was amazing.”
By contrast, there never seemed to be much dispute that White would place somewhere in the top three on rings – it was simply a matter of where. He finished second with a score of 9.787, but his teammates grumbled afterward that the gymnast they call “White Boy” should have been the National Champion.
The Owls expressed displeasure over Penn State’s Kevin Tan, last year’s champion and the favorite entering this year’s competition, receiving first place (9.812) with what some saw as a “wobbly” routine on rings.
“He really got ripped off,” Torcomian said of White. “Everybody in the building said Tan should not have won. The Illinois crowd gave Nyika a standing ovation. That’s how bad the politics of gymnastics can affect the outcome of a meet, and how a name can carry you to a win.”
Turoff polled his fellow coaches at Nationals and received a consensus: “Every other coach I talked to said Nyika should have won rings.”
White does have another chance. Barring injury, he will compete next year for a chance to earn his third consecutive all-American selection, an unprecedented achievement in Turoff’s 28 years of coaching at Temple.
“Since Nyika finished third last year and second this year, it now follows that he has to win next year,” Turoff said in a tone that was not entirely facetious.
But Maes’s career as a gymnast is over. The Evanston, Ill., native will earn his degree in Elementary Education this summer, and for the first time in five years, he will not be a collegiate athlete.
“As of the second I hit the floor on my last vault, I knew,” he said. “I’m just a regular college kid now, no extra-curricular activities, no college athletics. Just sitting on my couch, relaxing.”
Benjamin Wantanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.