COLUMBIA — John Figueroa, assistant coach for the Missouri gymnastics team, started his collegiate coaching career in 2000 at the University of Denver, the same place that he raised his family.
On Saturday, “Fig,” as most know him, will be returning to Denver with the Missouri gymnastics team, as they compete in a quad meet against host Denver, Western Michigan and West Virginia. Outside of competition, for Figueroa, it will be a time to catch up with family and friends.
“Everyone’s contacted me and asked me when I’m coming in town,” Figueroa said. “And then obviously both of my children are still there.”
Figueroa and his wife, Diane, have lived full time in Columbia since he accepted the assistant coaching job in 2007, while his two children, Angela, 24, and Johnny, 22, stayed in Denver to finish their education. Both of Figueroa’s children now reside in nearby Boulder, Colo.
Figueroa was the assistant coach at Denver from 2000 to 2007, helping the Pioneers move from relative obscurity to a consistent top 25 program.
“No one knew of Denver. Everyone kind of laughed when I said I was going to Denver,” Figueroa said. “The people I knew from USA gymnastics were like ‘Where are you going? I didn’t even know they had a team there.’”
His skeptics were soon proved wrong. In only his second year coaching at Denver in 2001, the Pioneers made their first-ever trip to the NCAA Championships.
Figueroa began his coaching career in 1990 when he purchased two club gyms in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. Figueroa, who owned and operated the gyms, built an accomplished program and helped six gymnasts earn Level 10 National Championship Titles, the second highest level of club gymnast can compete in.
In 2000, when Figueroa decided to pursue a career in collegiate coaching, he sold both of his gyms.
It was during his time as a club coach, however, that Figueroa met Missouri head coach Rob Drass in the late 1990s.
Drass, who was then the lead recruiting coordinator for the University of Nebraska, was recruiting one of Figueroa’s most accomplished gymnasts, Kristin Sterner, who went on to be a four time All-American at the University of Alabama.
“I remember going golfing with him and hanging out, and I really ended up liking Rob,” Figueroa said. “I just thought ‘What a great guy to go to work for.’”
Figueroa did not know at the time that he would have the opportunity to join Missouri in 2007 when Drass contacted him about a vacant assistant coaching position. Figueroa, who was ready for a new challenge, thought it would be a good opportunity to go to work for Drass.
“He holds a lot of the values that I hold as far as being a family man and having kids and being responsible in that angle,” Figueroa said of Drass.
As Drass knows, Figueroa has had success follow him throughout his coaching career.
“He’s been successful wherever he’s been,” Drass said. “Whether it's been with his club program where he put athletes at the National Championships or the USA Championships or when he went to college, where he was a great recruiter and a great coach at Denver, where he helped them get to the National Championship.”
That success continued at Missouri, as Figueroa helped coach the Tigers to their first NCAA National Gymnastics Championship in 2010.
Drass said that Figueroa brings energy into the gym with him every day, something that every team needs.
"He is kind of like the Energizer bunny of the team, he is always on and going and energetic," Drass said.
Aside from his role as an assistant coach, Figueroa also serves as the team's recruiting coordinator. In recruiting, he looks for a mutual fit for the team and the gymnast, as well as gymnasts who are “hungry” to succeed.
“I try to visualize where I can see them in our lineup and what they could do for us, and then I try to see four years out later what we can provide for them and what kind of an athlete we can produce at the end of the four years,” Figueroa said. “You don’t have to be the most talented kid; you just have to be one of the most hungry kids.”
However, while Figueroa takes pride in his recruiting, he is a coach first.
“I always say everyone can take an established gymnast and make them better, but can you take the kid who's not established and make them better and compete against the established kids,” Figueroa said. “That’s what I love to do, and that’s what I think I am very good at.”