The most successful name in Minnesota gymnastics history belongs unquestionably to John Roethlisberger. Clay Strother knows this.
But each day, Strother spends hours in a cramped, sweaty gym, pushing himself and chasing after the chance to hear his name mentioned with Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian from 1992-2000, as the best the Gophers have ever produced.
Strother, the defending national champion on the pommel horse and floor exercise, is currently ranked second in the country in the all-around and has established himself as one of the premier gymnasts in the country.
Strother has also made Minnesota gymnastics history by joining Roethlisberger as the programs’ only national champions since 1953.
What drives Strother, however, is the level of perfection he knows he must attain to be remembered alongside Roethlisberger.
“I’ve always had it in my mind that I have to be perfect,” Strother said in his methodical Texas drawl. “I’ve always had coaches who preached perfection, and it’s just part of my nature.”
Strother, a junior from Jasper, Texas, is a loner who at first glance doesn’t seem like a world-class athlete. He is shy with most people, having confessed he “absolutely froze” when interviewed by a local television station last year.
But a closer look reveals an extremely intense athlete who, according to head coach and John’s father Fred Roethlisberger, often works himself to such a high point of frustration in practice he must stop for the day.
“Clay’s frustration causes him to go to pieces,” Roethlisberger said. “He’ll leave or (skip) practice, and it happens quite frequently. It’s something he needs to work on.”
Strother said his introverted personality often compounds his frustration in practice, as he keeps to himself rather than cool off by talking to his teammates.
However, Strother has become one of the team’s leaders this season, eschewing an outspoken role in favor of setting a high standard for his teammates in practice.
Roethlisberger said Strother’s leadership can be attributed to his nearly flawless form and execution, which sets a textbook example for his teammates.
“When you watch him do his pommel horse routine, the only word you can use is ‘virtuosity,'” Roethlisberger said. “In the sense you could say a musician is a virtuoso, that’s what Clay is in gymnastics.”
Strother is a likely bet to make the U.S. Senior National Team this summer, and is training with the goal of making the 2004 Olympic Team. Only fourteen Gophers have made a national team, and just three have competed at the world championships.
Naturally, his inspiration in training for the Games is none other than John Roethlisberger, the only Olympian in Minnesota gymnastics history.
“When he comes in (to practice), he just makes you want to work,” Strother said. “When I came in my freshman year, he was still training for the (2000) Olympics, and to see him train made me want to work that much harder.”
When the Gophers host the Big Ten Championships on March 22-23, Strother will look to win his first individual and all-around conference titles. He leads the Big Ten in the all-around, pommel horse and vault, ranks third in the parallel bars, and is fourth in the floor exercise.
While Strother will be favored to win the all-around in the conference and nationally, he knows the Olympics and the place alongside John Roethlisberger as Minnesota’s best is a far bigger goal.
“I think the world of John,” Strother said. “He’s been a big inspiration, and to even be mentioned with him would be amazing.”
Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]