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Marquette graduate Styer set to begin what could be last gymnastics season at Illinois-Chicago

Chesterfield’s Taylor Styer, second from left, is one of four local gymnastics competing at Illinois-Chicago. The school is about to drop the gymnastics program. From left, Billy Hollis, of Webster Groves; Miki Northern, of Kirkwood, and James Strevey, of Frontenac.

Taylor Styer is battling to help his school retain its gymnastics program.

The Marquette graduate and Chesterfield native is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He competes with the men’s gymnastics team.

The school has announced that it will drop women’s and men’s gymnastics at the end of this season.

UIC coach Charles Nelson naturally is unhappy with the move to do away with his sport.

“As of this moment the end of the 2019 season will be the end of varsity gymnastics at UIC,” said Nelson, now in his 24th season at UIC. “The NCAA Championships for both the men and women are the weekend of April 19-21.”

Eliminating gymnastics drops the number of NCAA Division I schools with men’s gymnastics programs to 15. There are 61 Division I women’s gymnastics programs.

UIC announced that in order to fully endow the men’s and women’s programs, the teams must come up with $25.2 million by March 15.

Styer has had national success in his sport. He trained at the St. Louis Gymnastics Centre and competed with its teams.

He was crowned the national still rings champion in 2014. He placed fifth in the nation on still rings in 2015. In 2016, Styer was the regional still rings champion.

Styer is a four-time national qualifier. He also is a four-time state all-around champion. Styler is a five-time state champion on still rings.”

He knows what a tall task lies ahead for the program.

“Currently, the school is asking for 25.2 million dollars to be raised by March 2019 in order for our program to continue,” Styer said. “At first, I had no thoughts. I was completely shocked and blindsided. I had no clue what to think, say, or do.”

There are three other local gymnastics at UIC. James Strevey is a sophomore from Kirkwood. Billy Hollis is a freshman from Webster Groves. Michaela Northern is a senior from Kirkwood.

Styer said they all took the news hard.

“I think we all were pretty confused and upset,” Styer said. “There was a lot of tears, but as soon as those tears dried it turned into a new drive to make sure our family can stay together.”

Nelson understood their reaction.

“They are devastated. Gymnastics was a large portion of their choice to attend UIC for their higher education,” Nelson said. “They expected to be able to represent their university and have a long, proud, life as UIC gymnastics alumni. That opportunity is gone for them and for thousands of boys and girls who would have looked at UIC when their time came.”

Naturally, Nelson did not like the decision. His reaction reflected that.

“To put it in a word: disappointment,” Nelson said. “I am a graduate of UIC and I am proud of this university. I find it incredibly disappointing that UIC can’t work to serve its students and its history. Gymnastics at UIC is its most successful and popular sport. As a fan and an alumnus, I will be connected to UIC for the rest of my life.

“It’s disappointing that the university administration don’t have the same long-view of the athletic department and its sport offerings. Dropping gymnastics in Chicago is like dropping hockey in Canada. UIC alumni and everyone in the gymnastics community is incredibly supportive of the team and the coaches. I’ve been copied on many of the e-mails or letters that have been sent to UIC’s administration and I would say that the reaction they’ve received is significantly different in tone.”

The athletes are resolved to try and save the programs at UIC.

They ask people to sign at petition to help save the sport. The petition’s address is: https://www.change.org/p/uic-save-uic-gymnastics-flip-the-decision.

“We continue to spread the word,” Styer said.

Nelson realizes how difficult this will be. That’s a huge sum to raise and the clock is ticking.

“I consider that an impossible number on any timeline,” Nelson said. “More importantly, that would make UIC Gymnastics the only self sustaining sport at UIC, and I can’t abide by scenario that forces us to do that. Our goal now is to, at least, see if we can negotiate that number to something more reasonable and just.”

The cost for the programs is also something of a red herring, according to Nelson.

“No sports at UIC make money, and only one (men’s basketball) could ever be considered to turn a profit,” Nelson said. “The reality is that most sports at most universities do not produce a net income. That includes the vast majority of football and basketball programs. There is a myth that college sports make a profit for a university, and it is simply not true. It’s also important to point out that most student-athletes receive no athletic scholarships. ”

Nelson believes elevating the basketball team may be behind the move to eliminate gymnastics.

“It appears that UIC is following a strategy that has been attempted at several other institutions,” Nelson said. “The goal seems to be to raise the profile of the basketball team by moving to a higher profile athletic conference. To do that other sports need to have their “resources” fortified so the entire athletic department is attractive to a new conference. The cost of doing that appears to be two gymnastics teams.”

The season begins this month for UIC. The first home meet is Jan. 19 when the Flames host the 48th Windy City Invite. Teams competing will be Washington and most of the Big Ten schools.

Styer knows what he want to accomplish this season.

“Having fun competing even if it is for the last time,” Styer said.

The program has been good to Styer.

Styer’s strongest events are floor, vault, parallel bars, and high bar.

“College gymnastics is extremely team oriented making competing so much more fun,” Styer said. “(My) Freshman year was so much fun. The most memorable moment was watching my teammate Asad Jooma compete at the national championships.”

He credited Nelson and his staff with helping him improve.

“They have helped me develop my gymnastics and most importantly my confidence,” Styer said. “I came into the school timid and nervous but I have grown so much.”

Nelson agreed.

“Taylor overflows with talent. He can do things that a fraction of a fraction of the population can do, and he’s only beginning to scratch the surface of his ability,” Nelson said. “Taylor was an important contributor to the 2018 UIC team, and I expect him to become a leader in 2019. What I was most excited by in Taylor’s freshman season was his mental growth and maturation.

“Freshman year is difficult for every student, and it gets harder when you add high level competition. Taylor steadily improved his mental approach to training and competition in 2018 and he’s made even bigger gains this fall.”

Nelson credited the St. Louis Gymnastics Centre with helping Styer learn the basics. His determination and talent have continued that development.

“Taylor has the talent, and his coaches at SLGC did amazing work helping him develop that talent into great competitions,” Nelson said. “My goal at UIC is to maintain that trajectory. Taylor has been able to perfect some world-class skills over the past year and a half. I expect him to turn a lot of heads during his sophomore season.

“I think there is very little that Taylor can’t accomplish in this sport.”

Nelson said he expects Styer to do well in what could his last season at UIC.

“Taylor should be a leader this season. Certainly on the scoreboard, but in the way he approaches competition,” Nelson said. “He’s become significantly more confident as a competitor and when that is combined with his talent it can automatically lead the way for the team.

“Taylor is not as loud as some of his teammates, but his gymnastics speak volumes.”

If sport is discontinued at UIC, Styer has not decided what his options are.

“I do not know at the moment,” Styer said. “I am focusing on being with this team right now.”

Nelson said his program is good and worth saving.

“As a fan of gymnastics, as an alumnus of UIC, and as the team’s coach, I absolutely believe that the UIC men’s and women’s gymnastics programs are the model of how college athletics should function at UIC or any other institution,” Nelson said. “It’s sad that UIC sees these programs as expendable as they pursue a different strategy that, I feel, is destined to fail.”

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