by @LeapTheAtlantic on November 8th, 2016

Tom Gibbs
Age: 22
Club: Heathrow
College: Illinois

  • Member of the GB Junior National Team from 2008-12
  • Member of the 2013 Great Britain Senior National Team
  • Helped Great Britain to a 14th place finish at the World University Games 2015
  • Academic All-Big Ten (2015, 2016)
  • Co-captain of college team
  • Civil engineering major

Tom is an ex-Great Britain squad gymnast, he is now in his senior year at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Read his interview below to hear about his experience so far as a Fighting Illini, and what inspired him to make the move to America...

How did you find out about the NCAA?

I found out through other gymnasts who were already in the NCAA (Becky, Nush and Marissa), and then a lot of other gymnasts and coaches knew about the system and recommended it to me.

How did you get recruited?

I actually didn’t get recruited, I had to reach out to different coaches and communicate that way. I sent videos of my training and competitions, as well as explaining what I wanted to do. Some coaches completely ignored my emails but some were really good at responding and helped me with the application.

Who or what inspired you to go to university in America?

I really wanted to carry on gymnastics at a high level while studying, but this would’ve been really hard to do in England as there are not many options. There was only one campus with a gym actually on-campus for men’s gym (Loughborough), but otherwise it would have been very difficult and hard to motivate mysel with no support.

Why did you choose Illinois?

Illinois is consistently in the Top 6 in the country for Men’s Gymnastics, but also the #1 school for Civil Engineering in the US, and so it was best choice for both parts of my life.

Did you take the SAT exam? How did you find it?

I took the SAT in England by registering online and then finding the nearest exam location. It wasn’t very hard, but it was long and very repetitive.

What do you see as positives of doing both elite gymnastics and NCAA gymnastics?

For men’s gymnastics the NCAA is very high level, with a lot of the Worlds and Olympic team members having gone through the system, and so it is great to compete alongside them. Being in a sport is well-respected in the US and also teaches a lot of life lessons such as time management and team work, and so there are many benefits.

Is it hard living away from home?

I got very homesick my sophomore year and had to take a longer summer break to make the most of it (usually we only get 4 weeks to go home but I went home for 2 months). But being so busy with school, gym etc I don’t have the time to get homesick, and nowadays it’s so easy to see friends and family all the time with FaceTime and Skype!

What has been the biggest culture shock for you?

It’s still amazing to me how big sports in general are over here. I can just mention that I’m a gymnast and people are instantly interested, which is not the reaction I would’ve got back home. I’ve never seen crowds for a uni/college game so big before either. There’s always some sport going on and is packed with students supporting. (Oh also they say and spell things weirdly over here)

What do you want to accomplish while in the USA?

I didn’t really know what my goals were when I first got here, but it really hit me recently that I want to do my best this year and win the team a Big Ten Championship title. It’ll be a special occasion because we are hosting it, it’s on my birthday, AND it’ll be the first time my parents/family will come and watch me compete out here!

What do you think the benefits of the NCAA system are vs. university in the UK for athletes?

The NCAA makes it a lot easier to juggle both gymnastics and school because of the number of other student-athletes in the same position, as well as all the resources provided for us. We get great facilities to train in, free clothing, free food and free tutoring etc.

What has been your most memorable experience from your time at university so far?

Sticking my rings dismount at NCAA team finals this year to help the team place 4th. I don’t remember being in the air but I remember hitting the floor and hearing my team and the crowd scream. That was the best we competed the whole season and was a great way to finish!

What has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?

Being so far from home it was a big change of lifestyle but I adjusted pretty quickly. I’d say the hardest thing was not being at home for Christmas the last 2 years. Luckily I made great friends over here who welcomed me to stay with their families so it wasn’t so bad.

Do you have any advice for incoming freshman?

I would say keep an open mind and embrace the experience. It’s possible to juggle and do well in sports, school and social life all at once, so just stay on top of things so that you can have fun without feeling guilty. Work hard play hard!

Would you recommend the NCAA route to other gymnasts/athletes from the UK from your experience so far? Why?

Definitely, I know there are a lot of gymnasts who are in the same position as I was and want to carry on the sport whilst at university, but don’t have many options in the UK. The NCAA allows you to carry on both at a high level and opens up so many opportunities for the future. I’ve got to travel to so many different places and now have so many connections in this country.

What have you learnt so far in this unique role as a student-athlete that you don’t think you would have learned elsewhere?

I would say one of the most important skills I have learnt being a student-athlete and on a big team is how to treat and respect people from all different backgrounds. Our team of 20 is made of people all over the country and the world and have different interests and habits, but we all come together in a great way because we all want the same goals. Other than this I have become a great time-manager and and having to juggle everything, and a better communicator.

Do you think gymnasts in the UK have enough access to information and inspiration in regards to trying to follow the NCAA route?

No I definitely had troubles at the start and needed a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do and how to do it. If I knew about the option and had helpful resources earlier it would have been a much smoother transition for me and I would’ve been even more prepared. If people are at least informed about the option it would be life changing for them and could open up so many doors for the future. Visas and work etc are such a hassle too so if people are able to sort that stuff out early it would be really beneficial.