COLUMBIA — Missouri sophomore gymnast Meghann Raub left her silver Pontiac Grand Am in the parking lot next to Chipotle on Ninth Street. As the car door shut, Raub realized her keys were still inside the car with the doors locked. She was supposed to drive fellow sophomore gymnast Sarah Shire and herself to study hall, but now she couldn’t.
Raub thought of calling her father, but didn’t. She could have called AAA or the police, but didn’t. Instead, she picked up her cell phone and called first-year Tigers gymnastics associate head coach John Figueroa and asked him what to do.
Figueroa told Raub to go to study hall with Shire and he would take care of her car. Figueroa dropped what he was doing and headed to Raub’s car with a coat hanger. He found Raub’s car and tried to jiggle the lock open, but he wasn’t successful. He tried other solutions, but he eventually called the police. When they told Figueroa they could not open car doors because of insurance issues, Figueroa called Raub’s father, who was in Springfield for work. Her father came to Columbia that night with a spare key.
“They know that I am not going to judge them, and they will have a place to come to,” Figueroa said about being there for his gymnasts. “I want the kids to feel like they can come to me if they can’t go to their parents. I want them to feel comfortable.”
Figueroa was an assistant coach at Denver University for eight seasons, where he also acted as recruiting coordinator. “Fig,” as he is known by the gymnasts, puts a strong emphasis on education and succeeding in the classroom.
While his teams at Denver had varying degrees of success, the one constant was academics. In 2007, his last season at Denver, the Pioneers volleyball team compiled a 3.717 GPA, the second best in the country. Made up of mostly gymnasts he recruited, the team also finished 10th in the country in the team competition at the 2007 NCAA National Championships.
Figueroa has brought those same expectations to the Tigers gymnastics team. For a coach so adamant about classroom success, many would expect a no-nonsense, stern coach. However, Figueroa breaks that stereotype and is the team joker.
During practices, Figueroa is always in an upbeat mood and having fun. He sings to the music played over the loudspeaker, while, according to the gymnasts, messing up the lyrics. He dances to music and even mocks the gymnasts dance moves.
He is not afraid to make jokes about the gymnasts either. They are important for the gymnasts’ psyche.
“I crack a lot of little inside jokes, make fun of what they’re wearing, or what their hair looks like,” Figueroa said. “Anything to get their mind-set off what they have done for the day and give them a more relaxed atmosphere.”
During practice one day, freshman Lisa LaPerriere was running down the mat leading to the vault when she tripped and fell. After picking her head up, frustrated and embarrassed, she was just hoping her coach was not mad.
She looked at Figueroa, who started to joke with her.
“Did you forget how to run?” Figueroa said. “Did your mom keep you inside knitting all day long? It’s like a cartoon.”
“My joking with them is because I want them to relax,” he said. “If I’m the one to crack the joke and get her to feel that I am not upset about it, then she will feel more comfortable about her next turn.”
The next time she ran down the mat, she executed her vault almost perfectly.
When sophomore Danielle Guider was having trouble performing a front flip on the uneven bars, Figueroa was there to encourage her. When she finally completed the move, Figueroa bought her frosted cherry Pop-Tarts as a reward.
Now, whenever he goes to Wal-Mart, he continues to buy them as a joke. Guider said the Pop-Tart story shows how much Figueroa cares about his gymnasts and is just another example of his fun personality.
“It motivates me because he is such an exciting coach,” Guider said. “I want to be somewhere with someone with a positive attitude who always looks at the big picture in a positive way.”
As the Tigers’ recruiting coordinator, Figueroa’s upbeat personality not only affects the current Missouri gymnasts, but also the future gymnasts. This year the gymnastic team signed three highly–decorated recruits from Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas.
When Figueroa recruits, he does not change his personality because his jokes, dancing and singing are how he interacts with gymnasts.
“The kids want to see that they can relate to you in whatever way they can, and I want to be able to relate to them,” Figueroa said. “You want your kids to have a good environment and you want to really care for them.”
His enthusiasm for the sport is readily apparent to the gymnasts.
“You don’t want a coach that’s boring or monotone,” Raub said. “You want a coach that loves the school he’s at and loves to coach and ‘Fig’ is definitely that.”
His behavior helps make the coaching staff well-rounded.
“Him and (head coach) Rob (Drass) are completely different and it helps balance out the team,” Guider said. “It’s not so strict and not so relaxed, it’s right in the middle.”
However, the most important part of Figueroa’s fun-loving personality is that he acts with the gymnasts exactly how he acts with his two children. In return, the gymnasts view Figueroa as a fatherly figure and they know they can always count on him, no matter the situation.
“Any one of us could call him if we were ever in trouble,” Raub said. “He would be the first person I would call if I was stranded on the side on road. And you can talk to him about everything: boys, school or anything else.”