By Nick McCarvel
Weeks after Paul Ruggeri came oh-so-close to realizing his lifelong dream of going to the Olympics in 2012, the New York native got a phone call: It was Michele Ribeiro, a family friend Ruggeri had known for years.
“Come live with us,” Ribeiro, owner of a gym in New Jersey, told him. “Come stay with us for a while.”
Unsure if he wanted to even continue competing, Ruggeri took Ribeiro, whose son is former U.S. pommel horse champ Daniel Ribeiro, up on her offer. He packed his car and drove from his apartment in Illinois, settling into a newfound routine.
“Paul was a bit frustrated that he didn’t even make alternate after Olympic Trials,” Ribeiro told USA Gymnastics. “He came and spent a year with us. It was a good year of growth for him… He developed this whole new perspective.”
That new perspective is something Ruggeri, now 27, has meticulously implemented into his gymnastics over the last Olympic cycle: Life – and competition – is a process, not a series of end points, and the patience and confidence in said process can be his greatest weapons.
It will be an approach put fully to test beginning Thursday at the Winter Cup Challenge, where Ruggeri – as the defending champion in Las Vegas – will continue another quest for an Olympic berth.
“Winter Cup is the beginning of the Road to Rio,” Ruggeri said in a phone interview. “All the big guns are going to be coming out and everyone is going to bring an extra intensity. I can’t wait to battle it out.”
Ruggeri’s road no doubt took a U-turn after his 2012 disappointment, and has had many twists and turns since then. In 2015, he was tapped for his first World Championships after being an alternate three times, an experience that further proved to him that a career can be built on step by step.
“Last year taught me a lot,” Ruggeri said. “I learned to be patient and let the performance come; you can’t concentrate on the outcome. If your best is not good enough, then so be it. You can only control the moment, and that’s helped me embrace the competitive spirit.”
That was on display in Glasgow at Worlds, where Ruggeri had an epic struggle of a first day before recovering mentally, delivering for Team USA when they needed it most.
“I try to remind him a lot about learning from the negative,” said Ribeiro, whose husband, Joao Ribeiro, was an Olympic gymnast for Brazil. “I tell him, ‘Don’t get swallowed up by the negative.’ He had a horrible first day at Worlds, and guess what? Instead of being eaten by that, it fueled him. That’s not easy to have that much pressure on you when your confidence is completely shaken. I thought that was pretty impressive for him to dig deep and pull it together and do it for his team. The more he reflects on those things, the stronger he becomes mentally.”
The top goal in 2016 is to stay injury-free, with the Olympics looming in August and the U.S. Olympic Trials for men’s gymnastics in late June in St. Louis. Recently, Ruggeri has nursed a slight shoulder injury.
“Paul has been doing well lately,” said Vitaly Marinitch, head coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “Everyone has their own approach. We want Paul to be himself. We want him to go after things one event and one skill at a time. He knows how to turn it on when it counts.”
That’s an approach that helped Ruggeri win at Winter Cup 12 months ago, and something he’s continuously come back to after a slew of disappointments following his successful collegiate career at the University of Illinois.
“There are moments I didn’t get it when I thought I deserved it,” he said of those shortfalls. “I have learned to let go of the outcome. That’s what I have to do. My goal is to be on the Olympic team, but my real goal is to be the best I can. If I do that, my strengths will put me on the Olympic team.”
Phone calls are often with Ribeiro now that Ruggeri, a member of Team Hilton, is in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“I speak with him a lot about the process,” Ribeiro said. “The Olympics has always been the big goal… the quiet goal. Now that the Olympics are really close, it’s something you’re going to fight for or not. It’s about striking that balance: Not getting obsessed and overwhelmed, [but] focusing your energy to put yourself in the best position to make it happen. It’s a delicate balance. Who is going to be worthy, handle the pressure and be healthy?”
Ruggeri hopes that that’s him, and that the 2012 disappointment is something safely in the past. Regardless, as a reflective athlete, Ruggeri appreciates where he is at the present moment in his life.
“If you told me ten years ago this would be my life, I would be in a little bit of disbelief,” Ruggeri said, laughing. “I thought that I would be going to medical school. I think a younger Paul would be like ‘Holy crap! You actually accomplished something!’ But no, I’m proud to be a part of this gymnastics community and living out a childhood dream.”
Nearly four years after she called him, Ribeiro sees a completely transformed Ruggeri.
“He’s really, really focusing on the things that he can control and enjoying the other parts of the journey otherwise,” she said. “He looks like a completely different person. I think he’s really matured and improved his weaknesses not only as a gymnast, but as a human. He’s a role model, captain, leader.”
And if his debut as a competitor at Worlds last fall taught him anything, his approach is working.
“The one thing that did surprise me there was my ability to handle the pressure,” Ruggeri recalled. “There were a lot of nerves and a lot of emotions. Worlds was an emotional roller coaster. We suffered some injuries, but we still went out there and did our jobs. It was pretty remarkable.”