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First-generation American Paul Juda talks family support, Michigan, and Olympics ahead of U.S. Championships

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

Deerfield, Illinois’ Paul Juda is hoping to make his mark at this week’s Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose and, hopefully, at next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Juda recently finished third in the all-around at the 2023 Core Hydration Classic and is the 2022 NCAA all-around champion. He’s dealt with a series of injuries over the past year, including a hyperextension injury to his left knee which caused him to miss last year’s U.S. Championships. With hopes of remaining healthy, happy, and in the moment, Juda is back and ready to contend for the U.S. podium and world team.

RELATED: 2023 Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics streaming, broadcast schedule

How did Juda become one of the top male gymnasts in the country, and how did a native Illini end up at Big 10 rival Michigan? NBC Sports caught up with Juda to learn more.

*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Tell me about Deerfield, Illinois, and what it was like growing up there?

Paul Juda: It was awesome. I wouldn’t say it was different than any other suburbia town. And I’m actually from a neighborhood that was unincorporated Deerfield, Illinois, so it was a little bit farther away from the traditional Deerfield that a lot of people know. I have a lot of really fond memories. Most of them revolve around the gym, as with most elite athletes, but I was really fortunate to have both of my siblings do gymnastics at the gym. Both of them only did it recreationally. But I was always going there to kind of hang out and look through the doors with my parents. The gym had these push doors, and I would always push them as a little kid my mom said, because I really wanted to go in there and do some gymnastics. So, we were really lucky, the gymnastic center being quite literally a five-minute drive and more like a two-minute drive if you took a shortcut. My mom was always working hard and was always able to get me there in the nick of time. I mean, if gymnastics wasn’t that close, I don’t see it being as feasible as it was to be able to go to gym every day.

Tell me more about your family. Your parents are immigrants from Poland, right?

Juda: Yes, so I’m first generation American. My siblings were both born in either place. My brother was born in Poland, but my sister was born here. My dad came here first and then my mom came later on. They’re probably some of my biggest role models in the sense that they decided to make this insane jump to a completely different country, without even knowing the language. Whenever I get reminded of that story, it’s always super empowering to think about how much of an opportunity I have and to not squander it because of the fact that they decided to make this a leap with quite literally no insurance. There was no kind of backup plan in what they were doing; they were going because they thought it was the best move. And it turned out it would be, but it wasn’t easy at all.

My dad worked as an electrician. He had his certification from Poland and brought it over here, and he joined the union and worked real hard for us every day. I have these vivid memories of him picking me up from school and being completely sweaty and bringing me to gymnastics practice and just kind of being there for me whenever he could. And it was always so motivating, like I said, and it’s so motivating today to think about it, seeing how hard they worked. I just always wanted to repay them in some way. And I promised them that I would go to college for free. My dad kind of thought it was some craziness and didn’t believe it. And then finally, I started to tell him about the different recruiting visits and the scholarship opportunities I had.

Then, my mom -- my mom’s incredible! She moved here without any English either. And she raised me and my two siblings, my brother and my sister, who I’ll get into in a second. She moved recently to California, and she’s a nanny there. That’s always been her occupation in Illinois too. That motivated me in its own sense. The way she made a living was by taking care of other families, so in the back of my head I always thought “okay, well, I have to take care of myself, and I want to take care of myself.” I want to show her that I’m going to work my butt off to make sure that later on, we’re going to be okay.

Both of them just gave me such incredible life lessons and were able to really teach me just to have fun with life. I think my dad’s personality really taught me to be levelheaded at all times, which I definitely struggle with, but he taught me to be levelheaded and really ground myself morally. Find the rights and wrongs and always take the high road. And then when I think of my mom, she really taught me to take every opportunity and to grip it like crazy. I think of her as someone who, when she tells you her ideas and her dreams, they seem quite literally impossible, and you would even call her maybe crazy for trying. And then she does it and she always does it.

My brother and my sister both live in California now. My brother’s getting his PhD in molecular biology at UCLA, and my sister’s getting her nursing degree. My brother and my sister are both older than me. I was always the baby of the family. But they helped like crazy too. Whenever I had a gymnastics practice that I couldn’t get to, and I didn’t have my license yet, they would drive me, they would pick me up. We were a really good bunch.

You kind of touched on this a little bit with the recruiting process and your dad, but what made you decide to go to the University of Michigan?

Juda: I think the obvious story is, you know, (two-time Olympian, six-time U.S. all-around champion) Sam Mikulak, who is every young kid’s dream to be that guy, was at Michigan. I don’t know if my love for Michigan started before or after that. But I remember a couple of times when I was really young, we had some Region Five camps at the University of Michigan gym and I just always was like, “Oh my gosh, this is the place!” I think I was always drawn to the blue and yellow. I think for a long time, my favorite color was blue. I think it still is probably. And then I went on my visit to Michigan. And during the football game, I remember sitting in the stands and watching them run across the field with a block M flag and that was it. For me, I quite literally got this feeling in my gut that this is where I want to be for the rest of my life, or at least for the next four years! And so I called my mom from the field, which was a terrible idea because now I know that there’s no service at the field, but I called my mom and I said, “I’m coming here, absolutely no doubt about it.”

You were recently back in Illinois for the Core Hydration Classic in Hoffman Estates. Tell us more about competing at home. Did you have a lot of fans there?

Juda: You know, I thought about reaching out to a lot of my friends. I thought about making social media stories and stuff or something promoting the event and whatnot. But at the end of the day, I realized that the people that I would want to be there, that I cared about being there, they were going to be there regardless. And I’m not someone who really enjoys having 1,000 half-friends. I’d rather have five real friends. I think I just wanted the people that really mattered at the meet and the people that really mattered were there: my dad was there, my cool uncles were there, my girlfriend was there. And then I think I think the cherry on top was my two coaches, Evgeny and Leo -- who pretty much raised me at Buffalo Grove (Paul’s childhood gym), my second fathers -- were there, and I was able to put on a really good performance for them.

Hoffman Estates is not extremely familiar to me. I did graduate high school inside of that building (the NOW Arena), which is pretty hilarious. I think the area where all the head judges’ tables were, I think I walked across the stage right there for my graduation. And I did a backflip right before I got my diploma, which is pretty awesome!

Next for you is the Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships (Juda competes Thursday, August 24 and Saturday, August 26). Tell us more about your goals for this meet.

Juda: Finish the meet healthy, happy, and take in all the moments. Try not to get too hype or too down. My coaches at Michigan, specifically (assistant coach) Jordan Gaarenstroom, have really been training me on keeping my homeostasis right in the middle. It’s okay to dip down a little bit after a worse routine and it’s also okay to kind of go up a little bit [after a better routine]. But never exaggerate that high or that low too much. So, I think to keep a level head and to really finish the meet healthy and happy, like I said, are the main goals. Plus, to put on a really good show for the committee in terms of national team and the world championship selection. Just show them that I am doing good gymnastics. I wouldn’t say that I have any objective ties to the result of the competition. I just want to put on a good show, enjoy the limelight. You don’t get to do gymnastics forever. I think [Core Hydration Classic] was probably the first meet that really determined the beginning of the cycle for the Olympics. I just want to keep that momentum going and have a little bit of fun.

RELATED: 2023 Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics streaming, broadcast schedule

I can’t help but notice the flag in your background, the Olympic rings and the Michigan logo...tell us a bit more about that.

Juda: Yeah, I just put it up a few days ago. I just moved into a new place, but I figured that’s where I’m probably going do a lot of my Normatec recovery. Recovery is one of those things that just sucks so much. You’re like, “oh my god, 30 minutes, an hour! I don’t want to do this.” But you always feel better after, and I think keeping that flag right there is going to be a good reminder for why you push so hard, why you do all the things that you don’t want to do. I think every kid and every good gymnast has an Olympic flag. I wouldn’t even say that it serves that crazy of a purpose, but it’s always good to remind yourself to push just the one little percent, you know. I don’t think my room would be complete without it.

Paul Juda bedroom flag

Wrapping up, we have a few Illinois-themed rapid-fire questions. Whatever pops into your head!

First, deep dish pizza, yes or no?

Juda: I wasn’t a fan when I was a little kid. But as I’ve gotten older, I enjoy deep dish pizza. I really like Lou Malnati’s. So yeah, yes to deep dish pizza! But not over thin crust! I love thin crust pizza.

Cubs or White Sox?

Juda: Cubbies! Always!

Best topping for a hot dog?

Juda: Everything! Ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, sauerkraut, everything on there!

Best Chicago athlete?

Juda: Michael Jordan, no doubt about it.