Oct. 14, 2008
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 7, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2008-09 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
by Sean Neugent
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa men’s gymnastics program recruited just what it desired a few years back by snatching Diego Mercado-Austin to help hold down the rings.
Mercado was a gem coming out of high school with a No. 2 ranking in the 2002 graduating class. He placed second in the all-around at the 2000 Mexican National Championships. He was the Mexican National Champion on pommel horse, placed second in floor exercise and parallel bars, and third on vault in 2005. He was a member of Mexico’s National Gymnastics team and has competed in several world events.
The Tijuana, Mexico, native trained in San Diego, Calif., under club coach Steve Butcher of Mission Valley YMCA for a few years before being recruited to come to the UI.
“It was kind of a special situation and late in the recruiting season when we recruited Mercado,” UI head coach Tom Dunn said. “He was a little late taking his SAT (college entrance exam) and his coach is a friend of mine who recommended him.”
“First of all, my old coach told me to come to Iowa because he knew the coaches here and that they were going to take care of me,” Mercado said. “When I was little I always wanted to be coached by a Russian. We have two Russian coaches, so I saw Iowa as a good opportunity to fulfill that dream. That was my reason and also the academics here are so strong.”
The two Russian coaches are both assistants, Alex Kolyvanov and Dmitri Trouch.
Mercado’s mother, Connie Austin Dozal, was a bit of an inspiration at an early age when she put Diego in gymnastics when he was a child.
“When I was a kid, I used to jump around and was all over the place,” Mercado said. “For me to go to gymnastics practice, I would spend all my energy and I would come home and go straight to bed. Once I started competing at a low level, I really liked the competition and environment.”
“First of all, my old coach told me to come to Iowa because he knew the coaches here and that they were going to take care of me. When I was little I always wanted to be coached by a Russian. We have two Russian coaches, so I saw Iowa as a good opportunity to fulfill that dream. That was my reason and also the academics here are so strong.”
Going to San Diego helped Mercado learn English before coming to the UI.
“I went to high school in Mexico and I trained in San Diego for three years,” Mercado said. “So all I did was gymnastics and learn English for three years. I don’t think my English was as good as how it is right now when I came here, but it wasn’t bad.
“I was nervous coming to Iowa. But people from Iowa are really nice. I was nervous because it was my first time taking classes in English. When I decided to come to Iowa, I didn’t get to visit, so I had no idea how it was going to be.”
The all-around gymnast goes into his senior season with several accomplishments already to his name. Last season he qualified for an individual event NCAA finals in rings after scoring a 14.55 and placing 17th overall at qualifiers. Three of his 2008 season-bests came against the University of Illinois, including floor exercise (14.70), pommel horse (13.40), and rings (14.50). Handling pressure seems to come easy for Mercado, after all, if he can handle being on the world stage, he can handle the national stage and he has done just that. Some of his best scores have come during either the Big Ten Championships or the NCAA Championships.
In 2006, Mercado scored a season-high 8.75 on parallel bars at the NCAA Championships. He really came into his own in 2007, setting his personal-best score on floor exercise with a 9.00 at the Big Ten Championships. Mercado set another personal best with a 9.10 on rings at the NCAA team qualifier. With his 2007 Big Ten Championships performance he was given the team award for his inspirational performance there.
What the Hawkeyes really needed from Mercado was his strength in the rings event. Fitting, considering his best event is also his favorite.
“Definitely for our team he helps us there than anywhere else on the rings,” Dunn said. “He is pretty good on floor, too. We have had a little trouble getting strong guys who can help us in the rings and I thought he could help us there for sure.”
“I like the rings,” Mercado said. “You have to be really strong to hold yourself up. It makes you feel stronger than everyone else if you do them right.”
“I want the team to do really well this year. We are working hard to get to where we want to be. I want the team to be top three of the Big Ten and make the finals of the NCAA.”
Although Dunn has yet to set any goals in stone, Mercado is shooting for the stars with what he wants to accomplish as a team — something coaches and players want out of their captains. The Hawkeyes have a young team coming in with two seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and seven freshmen.
“I want the team to do really well this year,” Mercado said. “We are working hard to get to where we want to be. I want the team to be top three of the Big Ten and make the finals of the NCAA.”
“I haven’t put our team goals down in writing yet,” Dunn said. “We have a lot of freshmen on the team. I don’t really know what these younger guys are going to do yet. I think we are going to be better than we were last year. I am hoping we will do a little better.”
Mercado, a management and organizations major, plans to move back to San Diego after he graduates from the UI. He wants to be closer to his family in Tijuana and his girlfriend goes to school in San Diego. He would like to go into business and is talking to a company about a possible job opportunity there. A friend also opened his own gym and would like Mercado to be part of his staff.
But, before he parts ways with Iowa, Dunn sees Mercado potentially having his biggest year coming in 2008-09.
“I think it might be his best year,” Dunn said. “He is very conscious, he doesn’t learn the fastest, but he is gradually getting better and better.”
If Mercado has a breakout season, look for the Hawkeyes to make a run in the NCAA Championships. The UI captain will look to leave an impression on the youthful Hawkeyes for years to come.