Up in the Air

Men's gymnastics was cut — and reinstated — in McNeill's first year as coach.
Matthew Miller/Staff
Men's gymnastics was cut — and reinstated — in McNeill's first year as coach.

Tim McNeill spends the whole week calming them down. He’ll have them visualize their routines, being in the most comfortable place.  He tells them not to look at any numbers or scores — no matter how big the meet is.

All you can do is focus on what you can control.

The Cal men’s gymnastics coach practices this mantra everyday with his team. In only his second year at the university he graduated from in 2008, he’s had to adopt that mentality beyond the beams, bars and vaults.

McNeill finished his collegiate career as the most decorated gymnast in Cal history. He spent the 2009 season as a graduate intern with the Bears before moving to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, where he devoted his life completely to training with the national team and making the Olympic roster.

But only a year later, he was offered the head coaching role at Cal.

So he took the opportunity with hopes that he would continue training back in California.

“It was a really big change for me, training was my one focus in life,” McNeill says. “I had always assumed that I would have started as an assistant coach at a lower tier team for a while and build my way up.”

It was McNeill’s sophomore year when he realized that he wanted to coach collegiate-level gymnastics. He enjoyed watching his fellow gymnasts develop, while being a team captain for his junior and senior years further helped hone his techniques.

“It’s about the shock value that coaching gives,” McNeill says. “And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it, even 40 years from now, I’ll still love that feeling, being able to teach new skills and just seeing the kids’ reactions.”

Although McNeill’s youth and inexperience poses some possible concerns, he uses it to his advantage. He doesn’t just tell his team how to do certain skills — he physically puts on his grips and does his own demonstrations.

“I can completely relate to the athletes that I coach,” McNeill says.“I know exactly what it feels like when you have an injury or are struggling with the skill … it’s so fresh in my mind.”

His biggest worry was discipline — coming into a job where he’d be forced to regulate people that he was friends with, lived with and hung out with. Yet the gymnasts responded well to the newly set boundaries, due in large part of McNeill’s approachability.

“He understands the sport and pushes me, I feel like we have a connection,” sophomore Donothan Bailey says. “He knew exactly what I needed to do to get me to this level and he won’t take the credit for it.”

McNeill’s worries shifted when the the athletic department named men’s gymnastics as one of the five sports to be eliminated back in September 2010. The Falls Church, Va. native was thrust into what seemed to be a no-win situation.

“Even though I knew it was a possibility (of being dropped), it was still very hard to hear,” McNeill says. “That was heartbreaking.”

Despite the predicament, being able to come back to Cal and lead the program was an absolute dream come true for him. McNeill was determined not to let that upcoming season be the last season in men’s gymnastics history.

“The team really embraced that attitude,” McNeill says. “We never lost sight of our common goal.”

In his debut season, McNeill’s team was plagued with injuries, so many that it prevented the squad from having its strongest lineup, especially when it mattered at the NCAA Championships. The squad finished fourth in the nation. Its target was first.

Setback after setback after setback. Fluke accidents that really no one could control. Gymnasts train and perform skills at such a high intensity that getting hurt is inevitable. However, McNeill is not one to make excuses — he continued to remind his team to focus on its performance, block out distractions and stay in the moment.

On the students’ end, their responsibility was to train hard and try to have the most successful season they possibly could. From McNeill’s end, his main focus was on what he could control — fundraising to get the program back.

Cal Gymnastics Forever is comprised of about 20 people — current team parents, alumni and McNeill and assistant coach Colin Christ. The first phase of fundraising began before the elimination announcement, since gymnastics was a strong contender. In June 2010, they started a database of alumni contacts to raise money. Once the announcement was made, they were ready with a running website for pledges.

The campaign really kicked it up a notch in February, when three sports were brought back, but not men’s gymnastics or baseball.

“We broke down this list of about 1,000 people and literally made phone calls to every single person for donations and support,” McNeill says. “It took hours and hours.”

The main obstacle was that the university hadn’t given the squad any numbers; McNeill and company were just blind calling.

The figure was finally set by the Vice Chancellor — the program needed to raise $4 million, and the donations could be spread over five-year installments.

Like he teaches his team, McNeill maintained his composure and didn’t look at the number — no matter how crucial it was. He and his passionate group of members just went back and made all the calls again. And after much fight, they were able to extend the pledges to eight-year periods.

Once baseball was officially reinstated in April, it became the athletic department’s sole purpose to help bring men’s gymnastics back too. Cal Gymnastics Forever managed to reach between $2.5 and $2.6 million in May. In addition to the money, the group presented the athletics board with a business plan. Since they didn’t reach the projected number, the only way the program could be reinstated was to get rid of scholarships.

“It was not ideal, but the most important thing was having the team,” McNeill says.

Now with the team’s future secured, every dollar raised goes towards scholarships.

McNeill’s sacrifices are clear and prevalent throughout his tenure. It’s his genuine and selfless nature that makes him such a beloved figure at Cal. Yet when asked about his individual gymnastics career, he struggles to reply.

“In a perfect ideal world, I would like to give it one last push for the Olympics (in 2012),” McNeill says.

His greatest challenge is time. He’s been trying to stay in shape, just to keep his options open. But he’s at a big disadvantage because all the other gymnasts are training for the Olympics six or seven hours a day. McNeill is training only when he can find a random time.

“It’s been tough for me, I didn’t realize the amount of administrative work that comes with this job,” McNeill says.

For McNeill’s personal goals, he’s pretty much done it all except for the Olympics. He’s been to the World Championships. He’s won an international medal.

He’s taken home five NCAA Championships. He also has a US Championship gold medal in his arsenal.

But with all those astonishing achievements at the age of 25 come their hindrances.

He’s undergone two unsuccessful shoulder surgeries and two unsuccessful knee surgeries. He has three back fractures that he’s been told will never heal. He’s starting to develop a bulging disc and has torn and fractured practically every part of his body fathomable.

“My body is not made for gymnastics, I’m very very fragile,” McNeill says. “Some people are real durable, but I break easy.”

If he had to choose between competing and coaching, it would be a no-brainer.

“If I was fired from this job, I would be living in People’s Park,” McNeill says. “I don’t know what I would do.”

As of right now, McNeill is scheduled to compete at the US Championships in three weeks time. It’s still a little too early to tell about his decision regarding the Olympics.

Nonetheless, he remains loyal to his Bears and is keen to maintain the future success of the program. Getting that national championship is still the goal, but this year McNeill’s route to achieve that outcome has realigned.

“Last year we emphasized that national title every single day, and it was my fault because that’s something you can’t control,” McNeill says. “That’s not the focus, it is just to do the best that they can, that’s my attack plan, the outcome will lead to the championship.”

After all that he has experienced with the team and the fundraising efforts, that philosophy is fitting. For now, McNeill will be in his own comfortable place, at his Cal gymnasium. Focusing on the gymnastics he can control. And nothing else.