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Sunday, July 22, 2012
Updated: July 24, 5:24 PM ET
Caesar chases Olympic dream

By Michael Rothstein
WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Tap. Tap. Refresh. Tap. Tap. Refresh.

The click clack of fingers hitting keys on a laptop in anticipation repeated every morning. When would the notification come, the finality of the two-year process spanning two continents, two nationalities and a sacrifice of one dream in hopes of a different one?

One April day, the day he was supposed to leave Ann Arbor for vacation, it came. All the countless hours spent in the gym the past four years -- after it appeared his gymnastics career would end in Florida -- focused toward this moment. Toward one email from overseas, from the third continent the sport he almost gave up would take him.

Syque Caesar, American by birth and Michigan student by chance, would become an Olympian & for Bangladesh.

The email signifying the culmination of a series of life-changing events showed up a couple of months early. He thought he might not hear until June about a potential wild-card selection to the meet he dreamed about as a boy.

It showed up in April.

"I was like, 'What is this?' It was a pretty long chain of things and it came straight from London and the International Gymnastics Federation," Syque said. "So I knew it was legit.

"I woke up and read it over and over and over again."

Being in this position was so unlikely, the path so unclear at some points, he had no choice but to be amazed. Then he called his father, Quazi, who had helped make it all happen.

• • •

Syque fell in love with the sport he picked up after seeing a flyer in the mall with Quazi at age 6 near their Port St. Lucie, Fla., home. Serious about it, he soon realized he had prodigious talent and started consuming everything.

Syque Caesar
Michigan gymnast Syque Caesar tore his right ACL in high school and his left ACL in college.
He had a coach and competed on the top levels of junior gymnastics nationally. College coaches inquired. Then, at a regional competition his junior year, one tumble sent things spiraling.

On his best event, the floor exercise, he landed funny, finished the routine and collapsed. His right knee -- gone. ACL torn. His most important recruiting season vanished.

Then, Syque said, he had a falling out with his coach, leaving him rehabbing and coachless. Quazi, who understood the meaning of sacrifice from his own athletic endeavors, knew nothing about gymnastics.

Yet he offered his son his services. Syque would coach Quazi on how to coach gymnastics. On how to coach him. Quazi became certified, but in reality Syque coached himself as a teenager.

"He started coaching me first, me asking all kinds of questions, like, 'What is this called? What is this now?' There were so many things and it was so quick," Quazi said. "Seeing one twist, then I went to the videotape to do whatever I could to learn what I can."

Father and son spent days together, driving to the gym and training from 2:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., driving 40 miles each way to train at The Gymnastics Revolution Training Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Even training at the gym wasn't easy. One of the parallel bars wouldn't lock fully, so while Syque trained, one of the rails rested on Quazi's shoulder to help keep it in place during routines so the rail  and his son  wouldn't fall.

What Quazi lacked in knowledge, he made up for in motivation, keeping Syque focused on returning to competitive gymnastics and a college chance. Schools weren't interested. He sent a tape to Penn State and never heard back.

A year after tearing his knee, Syque qualified for nationals again -- but couldn't go because it conflicted with his International Baccalaureate exams at Lincoln Park Academy. With no scholarship offers and no last chance to impress, Syque figured his career ended when he accepted an academic scholarship to the University of Florida, which did not have a men's gymnastics team.

A random meeting and a mistaken piece of information was about to alter his life.

• • •

Kurt Golder took a chance. The only footage the Michigan gymnastics coach could find were homemade videos Syque produced before the injury. Otherwise, all Golder had was the word of the former Junior Olympics state director of gymnastics in Florida, John Hallett.

Hallett told Golder about Syque during a chance meeting outside the hospitality room at the 2008 junior nationals. He said Syque was admitted to Michigan, which intrigued Golder.

Golder soon found out Syque had been rejected from Michigan, but was on the cusp of admittance. But after conversations with Syque, Golder decided to fight for him and offered him a spot on the team, a chance to continue his career, and a very small scholarship.

"It's kind of a shot in the dark," Golder said. "We are always taking on guys who are either very small scholarship or walk-on and developing them. But John spoke very highly of him and you never know what kind of risk you're taking."

Unlike athletes who go to colleges for free or reduced educational costs, the Caesars would pay more for their son to play college sports.

Quazi knew tough decisions. A professional soccer player in Bangladesh, he said he quit in his mid-20s because he got married, sacrificing athletic ambition for his family.

"My dad was like, 'You have to do this. There's no way. You can't say no to this. This is something that you've been given and it is an opportunity you can't refuse,' " Syque said.

The chance meeting between two coaches saved a career and created an Olympian.

• • •

Syque stood on the medal stand in his adopted second country in December 2011, overwhelmed by 10 straight minutes of loud screaming and fame he never expected.

People wanted pictures, to reach out and touch him for a brief moment. In America, he was an unknown college gymnast in a sport with little attention. In Bangladesh, where he won the nation's first-ever international gold medal in gymnastics -- and doing so in the country during the seven-nation Central South Asian Artistic Gymnastic Championships -- he became a star.

His arduous 18-month journey from American to dual citizen started with another torn ACL -- this time in his left knee during his sophomore season -- and the realization that competing for the United States would never happen. Another path to the Olympics surfaced, one carved out by Quazi.

Syque could become a citizen of Bangladesh. He had been to his parents' country a couple of times and wasn't sure what the reaction would be.

After Quazi assured his son he would be received well, he began to fill out more paperwork than he ever saw in his life, sometimes completing the same form three separate times and taking tens of passport pictures.

Bangladesh granted Syque dual citizenship last year. In October, he went to the World Championships in Tokyo to compete for the first time for Bangladesh. It didn't go as well as he hoped, in part because they learned at the meet in order for him to be eligible for Olympic selection, he had to compete in the all-around competition.

He had not planned on it.

"We put together a pommel-horse routine that day," said Geoff Corrigan, a Michigan assistant and Syque's personal coach. "He hadn't done pommel horse in eight years."

They put together something manageable and in retrospect, it was fortuitous. An Olympic spot was far from guaranteed and he needed an all-around competition.

Two months later, Bangladesh was fully behind him, fighting for Syque's inclusion as a wild-card selection for the Olympics after his gold medal in the parallel bars.

To reach London, Syque sacrificed any future competing for the United States. He could no longer compete at USA Gymnastics events. He embraced his new uniform and the second country willing to give him a shot.

Winning in Bangladesh taught him that.

"They were so happy," Syque said. "The greatest support you could have. It really made me proud to wear the national jersey and really happy to be Bengali."

It wouldn't come without one more challenge.

• • •

Golder took a chance on him four years ago. In return, Syque developed into one of the Wolverines' most complete gymnasts and a team captain. A small investment with a large dividend, he was on track to become an Olympian.

Syque Caesar
Syque Caesar developed into one of the Wolverines' best gymnasts, but has battled injuries throughout his career.
On Jan. 26, months before his Olympic confirmation, Syque felt a slight tear in his shoulder. Two days later, as he leapt up on the rings in Champaign, Ill., he flexed, dropped down from the rings and looked at his right bicep.

It curled up. His labrum tore, detaching his bicep from his shoulder.

"I said, 'If my season's over, I'm fine with that -- but if I can't go to the Olympics ...' " Syque said. "Even though I wasn't sure I was going to go, I had an idea I was going to go."

The next day, Syque had surgery to reattach his bicep muscle to his humerus and started a 16-week recovery process kept mostly quiet. Golder told his team not to post about Syque's injury on Facebook or Twitter. He feared news of the injury could cost him the Olympic spot.

Golder worried even after Syque received confirmation. Not until May, when Syque performed at a high level during training, did the extent of his injury go public. By then, he was rehabbing at a pace a month ahead of schedule.

In late May, Syque worked on the pommel horse, which he considers among his toughest events. Over and over again he pushed himself with Corrigan and Golder watching. They couldn't tell he had been injured. Like after his two ACL injuries, Syque returned stronger than before.

On June 14, Syque received one more setback. One more challenge. He ruptured his left bicep, although this time, the muscle didn't retract. In a lucky break on an unfortunate circumstance, it also meant Syque could still compete in London with caveats.

Syque won't compete on the rings or pommel horse.

"Right now, it's affecting me more mentally than physically," Syque wrote in a June email. "I've been taking this week to get used to how it feels doing all of my skills and gaining all of my confidence back in myself and trust my bicep to do its job.

"I've been doing loads of extra treatment and rehab on it while trying to train smart in preparation for the Olympics."

Still, the anticipation is growing, even if he wants to keep the Olympics as close to a normal meet as possible. After everything he has been through, after all the chances aligning perfectly for him even to be in this position, it is hard to do.

Syque is going to the Olympics representing his father's country, the one that adopted him as its own over the past year. This has become bigger than him, bigger than one fortuitous journey and repeated struggles to reach that point.

Quazi's message stuck with him, perhaps the biggest thing Syque ever took from his father's coaching. Through three major injuries and a career that almost never started, he stayed with his father's words.

"He sacrificed a lot of things and he believed," Quazi said. "I told him, 'Listen, don't give up. Believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself and work hard, you'll reach your goals.' He believed, I believed, and our whole family believed.

"If anybody wants to do this thing, you have to stay to your goals, stay to yourself and work hard."

More people believe now. He might not medal in London and might not make the finals. But Syque Caesar has a country of 161 million people rooting for him, following him. Bangladesh is one of the most populous nations in the world and all of those eyes, the ones who barely knew who he was before, are focused on the American who took in a second country as his own.