Hawkeye Imports Find Success in the Gym

Dec. 12, 2006

Foreign athletes have become all too common within today’s collegiate sports and Iowa men’s gymnastics has followed the trend. Senior Matt Beiler (Canada) and sophomore Diego Mercado-Austin (Mexico) had left their home countries to get an education in the states. Gymnastics just happened to be what landed them in Iowa.

Although recruiting foreign athletes can be a difficult and sometimes arduous task because there are more hoops to jump through Head Coach, Tom Dunn claimed, that for these two, the task was not as difficult as others.

Beiler learned of Iowa through Natalie Balfour, a former Iowa gymnast, also from Canada. He was told to send a video to Coach Dunn.

“He had a good coach when he was young. The coach was European. Matt had a pretty solid background in the basics when he was growing up and that really impressed us on his tapes,” said Dunn. “His execution and form was excellent.”

Beiler was soon invited for a visit and ended up loving Iowa. He initially wasn’t sure if he was going anywhere, but ended up being a late signer for Iowa. It was the only school he had visited.

On the other side, Mercado-Austin had a very different experience. Growing up in Tijuana, he crossed the border every day to both train and improve his English in San Diego.

Although his background in gymnastics may have not been as good, Dunn still saw that he was strong and they were looking for guys who were strong on rings. He was also powerful on floor.

“His attributes were more physical, strength and power, and not technical,” said Dunn.

The only thing Mercado-Austin knew at the time was that he wanted to go to college in the states. He had no idea where he wanted to go. So, his coach made the decision for him.

“My old coach knew everything about the process and helped me out,” said Mercado-Austin. “It happened so fast, about a month. He said you’re going to Iowa and I was like, OK.”

“It happened so fast, about a month. He said you’re going to Iowa and I was like, OK.”

The two have admittedly adapted to Iowa quite well. Since Beiler grew up about an hour from Toronto and spoke English, he felt the transition was easy. For Mercado-Austin, the biggest hurdle was doing everything in English.

“English is not my first language, so it took me awhile to get used to this,” said Mercado-Austin. “It’s my first time taking classes and doing homework in English.”

Both have also tried to compete in their home countries so they can compete for their national teams.

Previously, Beiler was a three-time Provincial Champion and finished third in the 2003 Canadian Nationals. Since then he has tried to make Canadian events when there weren’t schedule conflicts with Iowa. Last year, he made the Canadian national team for the first time and will be vying for a spot on the 2008 Olympic team. Currently he’s looking forward to the 2007 World Gymnastics Championships.

“If he’s healthy, I think he could give it a shot in Canada,” said Dunn about Beiler’s future. “He could go back to one of the clubs he was training at before he came here. He’s got some strengths. The sport has changed a lot, even since he’s come here. They’ve changed the rules so you don’t need to do all six events on an Olympic team.”

Competing for Iowa has given him a lot more practice in how to handle meets. There’s only a few international meets and the rest of the time is just preparing for those meets. There’s a lot more pressure at the international level, so competing for Iowa has helped him, as well as Mercado-Austin, in preparation.

“They won’t send you to an international meet unless they know you’re 100 percent ready to go and that you have enough experience to compete at that level,” said Beiler.

Since Mercado-Austin did not head to Iowa right out of high school, he had time to fully commit to gymnastics as part of the Mexican national team. He had competed in top meets such as the 2003 World Championships and the 2004 Specialist Pan-American Games.

At Iowa, there’s been too many schedule conflicts. He hasn’t been able to compete for Mexico, but would still like to.

With this season being Beiler’s last at Iowa, the two foreign-born gymnasts will not be competing together after the season. Beiler hopes it won’t be the last time the two see each other. The Pan-American Games in Rio are next year and he hopes to be competing against his current teammate.

By Josh Mitchell, UI Sports Information