Luke Stannard back to train with coach Justin Spring

It was a gut feeling.

After taking nine months off from practicing gymnastics, Luke Stannard made one of the most important decisions of his career. A call made to Illinois head coach Justin Spring brought Stannard back to his alma mater.

The former Illini gymnast wasn’t heavily recruited like most Division-I athletes. Instead, he walked onto to the Illinois gymnastics team as a freshman in 2007. Trying out for the team instead of being recruited didn’t discourage Stannard.

“He’s one of those classic case examples of, not necessarily one of the most with God-given talent, but one of the hardest workers I have ever seen in my entire life,” Spring said. “He progressed quicker and faster, to a level I never thought.”

During his career, Stannard earned the Nissen-Emery Award, became an All-American and won a gold medal at the 2009 Visa Championships on the pommel horse. Stannard graduated in 2010 but stayed with the program for an extra year as a volunteer coach for the 2010-11 season. He then moved to Colorado to train at the Olympic Training center, where he suffered multiple injuries before ultimately quitting the sport.

“He had been struggling with really bad back issues,” Spring said. “For a tall gymnast that is pretty normal, for any gymnast that is pretty normal. He came back from Visas and decided to call it quits.”

After nine months off from training, Stannard realized that his career as a gymnast was not over. His body started to recover and after playing around in the gym, he was determined to come back.

“It’s harder than any other sport,” Illinois assistant coach Daniel Ribeiro said. “What they always say is, ‘The amount of time you take off, it takes double to come back.’ If you take a week off, it’s supposed to take you two weeks, just to get back to where you were.”

Needing assistance with his training, Stannard called Spring in hopes of once again training at Illinois. Spring agreed to help in exchange for help from Stannard as a volunteer coach.

“He’s a passionate alumn that came from the program, but he thinks about gymnastics in a different way than Dan, Ivan (Ivankov) and I do,” Spring said. “Even if you are saying it the exact same way, saying something slightly differently to a different person is maybe exactly how it needed to be received. That’s the value of having different minds and different personalities as coaches.”

Most of his first months at Illinois were spent preparing for the Winter Cup Challenge. Stannard’s training schedule fluctuated, but at one point he was training six hours a day, including some two-a-days. Stannard, along with senior Yoshi Mori and juniors Chad Mason and Jordan Valdez traveled to Las Vegas last weekend to compete for a spot on the national team. 

Pommel horse was the event Stannard needed to excel in to have a shot at clinching a spot on the team, but he faltered. After the first day of competition, he was 12th in the all-around and fifth on the pommel horse. However, like most Illini this season, Stannard suffered from an injury. A torn ligament in his thumb caused problems during his training and competition.

“His pommel horse was his bread and butter event and he needed to hit that,” Spring said. “Both days he hit it OK. It was enough to get sixth. ... He doesn’t have the difficulty to have an OK routine and still get (national team) points. He needs to perform and compete at an elite level very close to perfection. It’s tough for him.”

After the second night of competition, Stannard finished seventh on the floor exercise and 14th in the all-around. Returning from Las Vegas, Stannard will continue as volunteer coach for the Illini and share his valuable knowledge about the pommel horse with the men. As a former teammate, Ribeiro said coaching with Stannard isn’t much different than when they were Illini.

“It’s not that weird just because we have always bounced things off of each other even when we were on the team together,” he said. “I think that Luke and I have a very good understanding of the pommel horse and as teammates we used that to get each other better, now it’s the same thing except it’s not getting me better, it’s getting the team better.”

With a disappointing appearance at the Winter Cup Challenge, Stannard is unsure of what his next step will be. Spring and Ribeiro are both encouraging him to continue to train for the World Championships, where Stannard can earn individual titles on events, but his future career as a gymnast remains unknown.

“I’m kind of in the deciding phase right now,” Stannard said. “I’m talking to my coach and we are looking at the rest of the country and looking at a bunch of different factors. It’s very open-ended at this point, but I’m not sure what the future holds.”

Gina can be reached at and @muelle30.