Strother hangs around, heads to trials

Road to Athens

by Kent Erdahl

Circles surround the sport of gymnastics.

Equipment includes a set of rings, perfect scores end with a zero and champions earn shiny, round medals.

Look closer to discover gymnasts creating their own circles with extended arms spinning around a high bar, outstretched legs twirling above a horse, an arched back bending to the floor or a tucked body flipping through the air.

The best gymnasts seem to draw the cleanest circular lines with superb form, and Minnesota men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger said that former Gophers gymnast Clay Strother has perhaps the best form he’s seen.

Although Strother’s circular lines are a thing of beauty, he is more concerned about completing another circle – one he began as a freshman at Minnesota, which could draw to a close when he competes in the Olympic trials in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday.

The learning curve

Strother initially came to Minnesota for one reason – to get a chance to train alongside Roethlisberger’s son and three-time Olympian John Roethlisberger.

“I’ve looked up to him since I was probably 7-years-old,” Strother said. “He’s had me eying Minnesota ever since he was in college and first starting to get big on the (gymnastics) scene.”

By the time Strother arrived on campus in 1999, John Roethlisberger was training for his final Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Although he was just a first-year student, Strother said the experience of training beside an Olympian was invaluable. It has proved true throughout his career at Minnesota.

Strother finished college competition in 2003 as an 11-time All-American and began to realize that making the Olympics could be more than just a dream.

A turning point

After finishing his last season with the Gophers in 2003, Strother had to make the transition out of college competition.

Until he qualified for the U.S. Team participating in the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, Strother admitted that it was difficult training without the entire team.

“It was hard because you’re at a turning point in your career. You’re done with college and you’re like, ‘what do I do now?’ ” he said. “But making the Pan Ams was a big confidence booster. How many opportunities do you get to go to something like that?”

Strother made the most of his opportunity by earning a silver medal in the floor exercise and a bronze medal in the pommel horse. He helped the U.S. Team to a third-place finish.

What goes around . . .

Following the Pan American Games, Strother found himself in a similar position to the gymnast who inspired him.

With the Olympics a year away and school left to finish, Strother returned to Minnesota and began training alongside his former Minnesota teammates.

Strother said it was great to train in the familiar surroundings with his coaches and former team, especially the freshmen.

For at least one freshman, the experience was equally gratifying.

“It was inspiring to me as a gymnast to see him execute big moves with perfect form,” Steve Vuong said. “It made me want to work harder.”

Fred Roethlisberger, who doubles as Strother’s personal coach, said the benefit of training with Strother did not end with Vuong.

“Here’s one of the best floor and horse guys in the nation and he’s training next to you,” Roethlisberger said. “All you have to do is look over your shoulder and see what he is doing.”

Reaching for the rings

Fred Roethlisberger spoke frankly about Strother’s chances at the trials this week. He said Strother has nothing to lose because he is relatively young. But the longtime coach said a spot on the six-man team is not out of the question.

“He has done his routines enough that he should just go out and be the best guy on the floor and horse,” Fred Roethlisberger said. “The rest may just come down to luck.”

Strother said he is relaxed and prepared for this week’s trials partially because he is already one of only 17 men participating.

“It’s incredible. It’s been a dream of mine just to make Olympic trials,” Strother said. “It’s just awesome regardless of what happens. My ultimate goal is to make the Olympic Team, but I just have to go out there and do the best that I can and see how it goes.”

If things go well, Strother will start a new circle at a sporting event best known for its five rings.