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Former Olympic Gymnast Samantha Peszek Aims For NCAA Title

July 7, 2014

Before starring as a member of the U.S. women's national gymnastics team and the UCLA Bruins' women's gymnastics team, Samantha Peszek had to overcome a mental battle against a lack of confidence as an aspiring elite gymnast. 

Samantha Peszek
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Samantha Peszek

In 1993, at the age of 2, Peszek got her start in gymnastics after she was enrolled in classes at DeVeau's School of Gymnastics in Fishers, Ind., by her mother, Luan, who competed as a member of the women's gymnastics team at the University of Illinois from 1982-86. 

A native of Indianapolis, Peszek said the sport had not come naturally to her, despite her gymnastics pedigree. Peszek acknowledged that she had endured a variety of growing pains during her first several years in the sport, and she had almost given up gymnastics. 

"It was interesting, because I was just so bad," Peszek said. "I was definitely the worst one on my team at the time, and I got held back a level, because I was too scared of all my skills. My coaches and my parents were thinking that maybe it would be best if I quit, because I was in tears every night." 

Peszek said she had decided to stick with gymnastics rather than pursue soccer or dance, partly because she had become inspired after watching the Magnificent Seven become the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to capture gold during the team competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. 

"When I was 6 years old, I had my heart set on the Olympics," Peszek said, "I would always say, 'Yeah, for sure, I'm going to go to the Olympics.' I remembered that my mom had to apologize for me, because that's what I wanted to do."

In 2004, when she was 12 years old, Peszek became the youngest member of the U.S. women's junior national team. 

Peszek said it was at that point that she had known she had what it took to excel as an elite gymnast. She performed at the national team training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, under the eye of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and alongside future Olympic individual all-around champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin. 

"Seeing how many amazing gymnasts had gone through the program, I thought that I could do it, too," Peszek said, "because I was in the same spot they were." 

Three years later, during her first year of competition at the senior level, Peszek made her mark.

First, Peszek competed on the U.S. women's team that captured gold during the XV Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, topping host country Brazil, 243.225-236.725. 

Following up that success about two months later, Peszek was one of the six gymnasts who comprised the U.S. women's second-ever world championship gold medal-winning team at the World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. 

Originally selected as an alternate for the 2007 world team, Peszek delivered a 15.050 on vault during her only routine during the team final to help the U.S. defeat China, 184.400-183.450. The team win marked the first time the U.S. women's team had won team gold at the World Gymnastics Championships outside the U.S. 

Then, after winning bronze in the individual all-around at the 2008 Tyson's American Cup and finishing fourth at the Visa U.S. Championships, Peszek continued to prove her worth at the U.S. Olympic trials in Philadelphia with a fourth-place finish in the all-around. 

Although Peszek was not one of the two gymnasts who were named to the team at trials, she received an invite to the women's Olympic selection camp at the national team training center. Thanks to another strong performance, she secured one of the four remaining spots on the squad. 

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Peszek was tabbed to compete in all four events -- vault, balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars -- in qualifying, she said. But she suffered an ankle injury minutes before the qualifying round. 

As a result, Peszek was sidelined for every event except uneven bars, in which she scored a 14.800. Although she didn't make the individual finals in the event, Peszek still helped the U.S. team to a second-place finish and a silver medal. 

Peszek said she had not allowed the injury to dampen her spirits or Olympic experience. 

"When I had that injury, it was just kind of in my nature at that point to be really diligent and focus on my weaknesses," Peszek said. "Even though I was still injured, I could stretch, and I could still visualize my [uneven bars] routine, so I wouldn't miss a beat." 

Peszek said she had let her ankle heal for about a year following the conclusion of the 2008 Summer Olympics. During her return to competitive competition at the U.S. CoverGirl Classic in 2009, Peszek competed on only vault and balance beam, finishing second and ninth, respectively. 

One month later, Peszek capped her five-year run as a member of the U.S. women's national team at the Visa U.S. Championships in Dallas by winning a silver medal on the balance beam and placing seventh on floor exercise. 

Peszek competed with a torn labrum, and she said she had hoped to make her second straight World Gymnastics Championships team as a three-event specialist. She made it to the final selection camp, but said she had pulled out and opted to have surgery on her torn labrum.

Peszek said she had taken a year off from competition in 2010 to regroup, both mentally and physically, while also focusing on her studies. 

A 3.9 GPA student at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Peszek said she had wanted to find a college gymnastics program that held academics in the same esteem as gymnastics. Peszek said that when she had visited UCLA and coach Valorie Kondos, she had felt the program best fit what she had been looking for. 

"I really appreciated the emphasis that UCLA had on academics just as much as athletics, which I felt were lacking in some of the other programs," Peszek said. "To me, the girls that graduated from the [gymnastics] program at UCLA were so successful, confident and just doing really well in life, and that's where I wanted to be in four years." 

Since joining the Bruins women's gymnastics team in 2011, Peszek has won an NCAA balance beam title; a Pac-12 balance beam title; and an NCAA regional all-around title, uneven bars title and balance beam title. For her efforts, Peszek has earned 10 All-America honors. She is also a two-time Scholastic All-American. 

But even with her individual success and accolades, Peszek still has unfinished business as she continues preparing for her fifth and final season at UCLA, she said. 

"I came into UCLA wanting four [national championship] rings, and I have yet to have one, so my No. 1 goal this year is to win a national championship," said Peszek, who received an extra year of eligibility after sitting out the 2013 season with a torn right Achilles tendon. "I'm not going to do the crazy skills that I love to do, because I want to get as perfect of a score as I can for the team. I just need to stay healthy, so I can compete as much as possible." 

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