April 17, 2012
By Amy Hughes
After three seasons of injury and disappointment for redshirt junior Alyssa Pritchett, 2012 has seen the Orange, Calif., native step into the Bruins' lineup on floor exercise and find success.
"She came in as a walk-on with really good skills, but not with the mental game to be able to handle the high level of gymnastics she was doing," said UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field. "Every year, she would be in an exhibition routine on floor or be competing on floor and would just get ahead of herself mentally and land short. Then she'd be out for the season."
"I came here and was all excited and trying to make my breakthrough," said Pritchett. "Then I got hurt my freshman year, spraining my ankle partway through the season and recovered from that. Sophomore year, the same thing happened, and I found out later on that I had a stress fracture in my ankle. The only way to fix it was surgery."
That surgery forced Pritchett to redshirt the 2011 season, but that didn't keep her out of the gym.
"Going through this injury last year really helped me to work on my mental game," said Pritchett. "I did a lot of visualization and learned to believe in myself and know that I can hit the same in practice as in a meet.
"It was difficult because I was hurt, and it was hard for me to find my role," said Pritchett. "Last year, I figured out how to find my role apart from gymnastics - being there for my teammates, encouraging them, being an example and working hard and being happy. I was trying to help in any way that I can. That helped me to step into this role this year and be able to contribute not only in those ways, but also as a gymnast."
Prior to her redshirt season, Pritchett had been one of UCLA's six competing athletes just twice on floor and once as a late sub on vault. This season, she has competed in all of UCLA's last nine meets entering this weekend's NCAA Championships and is averaging 9.797, with a career-high 9.900 set twice this season. She won the floor title at the IGI/Chicago Style Classic on February 10 and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors on floor.
"I think my first two years here, I competed a couple of times, but the nerves would always get to me," said Pritchett. "The way I would practice and the way that I would perform would be totally different. I know that was completely mental. I always knew I had the ability to do a good routine, but for some reason I'd always freak out and rush. It wasn't what it could have been."
UCLA Associate Head Coach Chris Waller has worked closely with Pritchett to help her overcome those mental obstacles.
"Alyssa has never once lacked in effort," said Waller. "From the first day she has been here, she has brought as much effort as anybody could possibly bring. I've never seen her not try as hard as she could. Over the course of three and a half years, the process has been for her to realize that she's good enough. She needed to just find the belief in herself, and she just needed to trust herself and believe in all the hard work. It has paid off."
Kondos Field agreed. "She just kept plugging away," she said. "We've been working with her mental game for three years, and this year she's finally putting it all together. It's a tribute to her consistent pursuit, not of perfection, but just to be the best the she can be. It's so nice to see all of that hard work come to fruition."
The payoff for Pritchett has been both her increased role on the team, and being able to compete for the Bruins during their most critical meets of the season.
"This year has been a completely different experience than before," said Pritchett. "It's definitely rewarding to feel like I'm actually contributing to the team. I'm so excited for this weekend. It's my first time actually competing in the postseason, and it's been an awesome experience. This will be my first time actually down on the floor at nationals, and I'm really excited."
As UCLA heads to the NCAA Championships this weekend in Duluth, Ga., Pritchett continues to navigate postseason meets for the first time in her Bruin career. Thanks to her year away from competition and the continued faith from her coaches, Pritchett is poised to continue her season of success through to the finish line.
"She works really hard to calm her mind," noted Kondos Field. "It's interesting to watch her right before she goes up on floor, and the relationship she has with Chris. When she goes up on floor, she gets nervous because she's never competed for us all season. She's never been in our top six. She's never competed at a championship meet, Pac-12s or a Regional. She's never competed on a podium. The way he gets her calm and what he says to her is just brilliant."
"Before she goes on the floor, it's pretty simple," said Waller. "I basically tell her that you don't need to try too hard. You've done so much work, so go out there and make it a show. Just enjoy it and go out there and do 80%, because that's what most people do when they do 100%.
"Because she has all this energy, she's like a permanent ray of sunshine in the gym," said Waller. "She's always been this gem in the gym. In the three previous years, it's been sunshine, energy, and a bit of anxiety. This year, it has just been confidence, happiness, and hard work. She lights up the gym every day."
Pritchett gives a lot of credit to Waller's work with her over the last two years to her current success. "He is the one who has really helped me through floor and everything," Pritchett said. "Knowing that he's believed in me this whole time and having him there never giving up on me, always believing that I could do well and never giving up, I think that helped me so much just having him behind me this whole time. I don't think I would have been able to believe in myself as much if I didn't have that. It's really helped me this year."
Pritchett's success story has become a source of pride for the Bruin coaching staff.
"It's been fun to see her get very close to her potential and enjoy the hard work and effort that she has put in," said Waller. "It's 90% of why I coach. To help people live a better life and learn life lessons through the sport of gymnastics. I'm hoping that this experience for her is going to be one that propels her to believe that she can do anything she sets her mind to. She's not going to lack the effort. Now she gets that. She just has to believe in herself. It's huge. It's why I coach."
"It's so rewarding," said Kondos Field. "This is why we do our job. She is a true success story for us. She is the type of athlete that at the end of the day I can go to bed at night and think `you know what? I did a good job.' The lessons that she has learned about calming her mind and her ability to be able to focus, she will carry those with her into everything she does in life."
Pritchett can also see the impact of her gymnastics on the big picture.
"I would not take back anything that I've experienced," said Pritchett. "Because of all that I went through with injuries and how much I've grown mentally, it has really helped me as a person. With Miss Val and Chris, that's their philosophy. It's bigger than gymnastics. It's about growing as a person and learning, through gymnastics, skills for life. It took me a while, it was a process, but I'm finally figuring it out."