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Centre Daily Times

Vargas A Calm Presence For Nittany Lions

By Jeff Rice

6 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Centre Daily Times. All rights reserved.

There is a calm about Luis Vargas, a natural easiness that outlines every movement. He barely bats an eye after his rare bad routines, and shrugs off his good ones, which are the envy of nearly all of his peers. He'll give the crowd a little wave and, as the judges hold up scores of 9.7 or 9.8, walk back and join his teammates.

"He's like, 'Yeah, I did it. Whatever,'" marvels Penn State junior Chad Buczek.

At 21-years old, Vargas has competed and won all over the world, at the collegiate, national and international levels. He has one more year of eligibility after he tries to lead the Nittany Lions men's gymnastics team to an NCAA-record 12th team title next month, but he won't use it.

After Vargas picks up his kinesiology degree this May, he will leave University Park to bounce around the globe, competing in various tournaments and working to get back to the Olympics or to make a splash at the World Championships. Maybe he'll leave Penn State with a second NCAA all-around championship, or otherwise add to his collection of 11 All-American honors. Maybe not. Vargas wouldn't lose sleep over the latter, and probably wouldn't make too much of the former.

He will continue to calmly go about his business, and the Nittany Lions will continue to appreciate Vargas' stop in University Park, the latest on what should be a long and fruitful journey.

"I don't know if the word is out around this area of what people are missing," Penn State men's gymnastics coach Randy Jepson said. "This is a guy that can medal at any international event he enters. That's the standard he's set."

Case in point: Last weekend, the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions lost a contested meet to No. 2 Ohio State in Rec Hall. While his teammates were battling the Buckeyes, Vargas was on Long Island, N.Y., finishing in the top seven in three events at the American Cup, an event that featured 70 of the world's elite gymnasts.

An impressive performance against stout international competition, to be sure, but the highlight of Vargas' year -- if not his career -- remains last summer, when he was the lone gymnast representing his native Puerto Rico in the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Vargas made the finals of the individual all-around and wound up finishing 15th, but the experience, plus the two months before he had spent training full-time in Romania, had a lasting impact.

"I learned so much from Romania," he said. "How to eat healthy, getting good rest."

Before, Vargas would think nothing of going to bed at 1 a.m., but learned to regiment his schedule and improve his eating habits. He returned to State College fit, sharp and ready to refine his routines.

"He was a lot more focused on doing things he knows he should do," Buczek said. "Sometimes coaches don't know exactly what's best for you, but sometimes a lot of us come in here and we believe that they do. He's that much more experienced where he can say 'I don't know if that's best for me,' and he can take it back."

Vargas is always adding something to his repertoire, which Jepson says he is able to do because his overall fundamentals are so sound. The first time he saw Vargas - "this tiny, skinny kid with great lines" - was at the 1999 Pan-American Games, but he thinks it could have been even sooner. Penn State had recruited gymnasts in Puerto Rico before but not for several years. Jepson wanted Vargas to be the one who would re-open that door.

"You could just tell this guy was going to develop," Jepson said.

Vargas, however, wanted to remain a year in Puerto Rico, partly to avoid the SAT, he said with a grin, but mostly to get a handle on his English. He enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, which does not sponsor a men's gymnastics team, for one year before coming to Penn State in 2002. Though the Rio Pedros native spends much of his offseason time at home, he says he has two families -- the one in Puerto Rico and the one with which he practices every day.

"He's been able to travel and compete abroad and develop as an international gymnast," Jepson said, "and at the same time, you can't say that he hasn't done well here."

Vargas' best event is the parallel bars, but he isn't far behind on the high bar and pommel horse, and his vault has improved this season as well. There are a few technical flaws that will pop up from time to time on his floor exercise, Jepson says, and Vargas' start values, like those of every other gymnast, will have to be adjusted as national and international standards get tougher and tougher.

Balancing the events equally has been a challenge -- "Sometimes I just want to focus on one or two," he says - but his easy demeanor belies a persistent work ethic. He knows that, in many ways, he is just getting started. Jepson and Vargas talked before the season about the possibility of Vargas' return for his final year, but the world stage is calling, and Vargas, calmly and quietly, has decided to answer.

"I'd love to have him, but at the same time I understand where he's at, and I'm going to help him do anything he can to do what he wants to achieve," Jepson said. "If that's at the international stage, then we're going to help him do that."

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