Junior gymnast Israel Alatriste stands in the middle of a whirling, tumbling and shouting group of boys on a Monday afternoon. He gently but firmly instructs them as they learn how to flip backwards, bracing each boy as he prepares for his leap. These are the Spirals, members of UCSB’s after-school youth gymnastics program, and they’re loving every minute of their jumping and rolling around in Rob Gym’s gymnastics room.

Israel Alatriste just smiles. He knows the feeling.

When UCSB announced in August 2001 that the school would no longer be supporting the men’s and women’s varsity gymnastics program, Alatriste was part of the last squad that competed in the NCAA. That team would go on to have one of their most successful seasons ever, with men’s Head Coach Mircea Badulescu declaring them “the best in school history.”

Now, two years removed from that last glorious season, Alatriste, Badulescu and the gymnastics club are dealing with the reality of their situation. The team, now a sport club, performed well in 2003 – but due to graduation, transfers and of course the ever present shadow of their recent loss of NCAA status, the program is in its most precarious position in the twenty years since Badulescu first took over.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting for our life here,” Badulescu said. “[The lack of funding] is politics, and politics changes like the weather. It still feels wrong though.”

The program had a breath of fresh air during April 8-10 when Alatriste and junior David Kaplan competed at the USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Championships’ club division in Denton, Texas. Kaplan took home the USA Gymnastics Scholar-Athlete Award after competing in the rings and the vault. It would ultimately be Alatriste, however, who captured the tournament’s attention.

“He just absolutely dominated,” Kaplan said. “No one was expecting anything from Santa Barbara, so there were a lot of surprised people.”

Surprise would be an understatement. UCSB competed in only one other event before Texas, so few if any had even seen the Gauchos perform. Perhaps that anonymity might have even helped Alatriste on his way to capturing the club division’s all around title after an audacious Friday performance catapulted him to the top of the standings.

“He was hitting on all his routines, and they all had a high degree of difficulty,” Kaplan said. “Everyone was surprised, but we knew he could it.”

Alatriste was in the top 10 for each of the six events, including several second and third place finishes. It was in the high bar, Alatriste’s particular strong point, where the junior gymnast made his statement. After taking second place in the club division, he advanced to Saturday’s varsity division where he once again faced off against his former NCAA opponents. Alatriste took ninth in a field that included NCAA powerhouses Air Force Academy, Navy and eventual champions College of William and Mary.

“I’m very proud of Israel. He tried for a very technically difficult routine [on Saturday], and he didn’t do as well as he wanted. But he was still trying for it,” Badulescu said.

When the talented junior returns next year to defend his all around crown, he won’t be catching anyone unaware. It might not matter, though. “He’s got so much potential and talent” still untapped, according to Badulescu, that after just one more year of training Alatriste could keep exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Hector Acuna, father of six-year-old Spirals member Joshua Acuna, agrees.

“Israel’s just great with the kids. He’s very calm and patient with them,” he says. “When you talk to him, he’s such a regular guy. And then you catch him doing one of his routines, and all you can say is ‘Wow’.”