By Jo-Ann BarnasSpecial to USA Gymnastics

Paul Ruggeri III wasn’t focused on the scores, not a bit. Not at that moment anyway.

All he knew was, like a basketball player driving up the court with a chance to win the game, Ruggeri needed a solid performance on the final rotation in the men’s all-around at the Winter Cup Challenge last Saturday.

He needed to control the moment; not for the moment to be in control of him.

So Ruggeri dug deep and, with confidence – and, yes, control – came up big on parallel bars. His reward was a well-earned victory at the Winter Cup, the first major men’s domestic event of the season at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel & Casino’s Royale Pavilion.

A veteran of the U.S. Senior Men’s National Team, Ruggeri said he was so excited to win Winter Cup that he called it the biggest title of his post-collegiate career after helping Illinois capture the 2012 NCAA men’s gymnastics crown.

To be sure, Ruggeri was equally proud standing on the podium and receiving a bronze medal alongside the U.S. men’s world team at the 2014 world championships in Nanning, China. But Ruggeri was an alternate at the meet and didn’t compete.

“It was definitely a different experience for me,” Ruggeri said of his all-around win in Las Vegas (he also took home gold medals on vault and high bars, and bronze on floor exercise). “It was a different position for me. After the first day, we were close and I knew I had potential to beat everyone, but I wasn’t sure about it.”

But by the end, he sure did.

Ruggeri, who’s from Manlius, N.Y., and trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., as a member of Team Hilton HHonors, posted a two-day combined total of 175.250 in the all-around to finish ahead of silver medalist Steven Legendre of Norman, Okla./Team Hilton HHonors (University of Oklahoma) 174.700.

Donnell Whittenburg of Baltimore, Md./Team HHonors (USOTC) captured the bronze, 174.500.

Ruggeri, 26, had a feeling it might be a good day after he scored a 15.050 on high bar – his first event –performing a layout Kolman and a nearly sticking his layout double-double dismount.

Ruggeri didn’t compete in last year’s Winter Cup because he was recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. He hopes his success last weekend will be an omen to last through the season. It certainly goes a long way in justifying his decision to train through the 2016 Rio Olympics.

© John Cheng

“I feel like I have more to accomplish,” Ruggeri said. “I’m open-minded about everything, but right now, it’s about me being the best I can be.”

At the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., Ruggeri placed sixth in the all-around, third on floor exercise and high bar, and seventh on parallel bars. He later said that he wasn’t surprised that he wasn’t awarded an alternate position for the Olympics because of his weakness on pommel horse and still rings.

Although they’re still not his strengths, Ruggeri said he has worked hard to be consistently clean on both events.

“In the past two years, I’ve played around with a bunch of new skills and settled on routines that highlight my strengths,” he said.

Ruggeri snickered and added: “On pommel horse, it’s trying to stay as clean as I can – and get off.”

Ruggeri, who has been an alternate on three world teams (in 2014, 2013 and 2010), said his goal this season is to hit all of his routines this summer at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis.

He plans to arrive in Indy already having accomplished one career goal: Ruggeri is on track to complete his MBA from DeVry University and its Keller Graduate School of Management in June. He has been taking online courses at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, where he has been training for the last 16 months.

But in the short term, Ruggeri has this to look forward to: He’s part of a group of six U.S. Senior Men’s National Team members that will participate in a joint training camp with Great Britain’s team next week in Lilleshall, England.

The five of the six making the trip are members of Team Hilton HHonors: Jake Dalton, Steven Legendre, Danell Leyva, Alex Naddour, and Ruggeri.  Marvin Kimble of Milwaukee/Swiss Turners, is the final member of the squad.

The teams will participate in an inter-squad competition March 4.