A former Olympian paid Mike Wilner quite the compliment as he competed on rings last year at the Big Ten Conference championships in Iowa City.
“That was textbook,” Big Ten Network analyst John Roethlisberger said. “That looked like the ironing board in my room.”
Roethlisberger was referring to the Buffalo Grove native's perfectly still Maltese cross, a demanding skill in which a gymnast holds his body parallel to the ground at ring height with his arms extended laterally.
The University of Illinois sophomore has only gotten better, this month maintaining the country's No. 1 ranking on rings with a three-score average of 15.413. He also holds the nation's second-highest rings score of 15.9, a record for the sixth-ranked Fighting Illini.
“It's one of the few events where the performance relates directly to the work you put in,” Wilner said. “It's very much a strength-oriented event and I work really hard at it.
“It also helps that my grandpa was a bodybuilder,” he added.
For Wilner, who didn't join a competitive team until seventh grade at an age considered ancient by gymnastics standards, showcasing his strength more than nine feet in the air is where he shines.
“The rings is brute strength,” said Illinois men's gymnastics head coach Justin Spring, who was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “Mike came in incredibly strong but struggled with his swinging. He worked at it, and now he's one of the strongest, best swinging guys around.
“I could see him being a national champion, even this year,” Spring said.
Though the 2011 Stevenson High School graduate so far has competed just in rings for Illinois — the NCAA's reigning national champs — he'll showcase his skills on multiple events this summer in Israel.
Last month, Wilner was among six men selected to compete for the U.S. on the Open Gymnastics team in the 19th Maccabiah Games, held every four years to build Jewish pride through sports. Athletes will spend nearly three weeks in Israel, touring the country and competing against gymnasts from across the globe.
“One of my main goals in life was to make a national team, and being Jewish, it's exciting to be connected to my homeland,” Wilner said.
Success at such an elite level comes at a high price. He and his teammates practice three hours a day, six days a week. That's in addition to strength workouts and time with the trainer to prevent and rehab injuries. Weekends usually mean traveling to places such as Berkeley, Calif., or State College, Pa., for meets.
Then there's school, which would be a challenge even by itself. Wilner estimates he averages about five hours of studying each night as a computer engineering major in one of the nation's top-ranked programs.
“The nice thing is that we get free tutoring, so I definitely take advantage of that,” he said. “Everything can get a little overwhelming, but everybody's very accommodating.”
Like most guys his age, Wilner grew up playing video games. But he also enjoyed dismantling and reassembling them, and he said that curiosity has stayed with him through college.
During his rare spare time, he enjoys writing computer programs, including one he's put to good use. DScore assists coaches, athletes and enthusiasts in the creation of men's gymnastics routines, calculating start values and supporting live updates to the ever-changing point system.
He also wrote a program that reflects his love of baseball. LineItUp streamlines the process of assigning a batting order and fielding positions by checking for errors in lineups and formatting printouts for games.
Susan Wilner said that despite everything on her son's plate, she doesn't worry knowing his team and coaches are a second family. Plus, she and her husband, Corey Wilner, are able to travel to most of his meets.
“He's one of those hyper-focused kids,” his mother said. “I remember his senior year at Stevenson, catching a late flight home after nationals so that he could take two AP tests the next day. He's very capable and thrives when he's busy.”
Wilner, who helped lead Stevenson to a state title and was the 2011 Junior Olympics champion in rings, hopes to be an NCAA champion before graduating from Illinois. He'd also love to compete in more than just his specialty.
“I'm just working on continuously improving,” Wilner said. “The team's packed with talent, so we'll see.”
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