UCLA Olympian Profile: Samantha Peszek
June 28, 2012
UCLA owns one of the richest Olympic traditions of any University. Over the past nine decades, nearly 450 athletes, coaches and trainers have represented UCLA in the Summer Olympic Games, winning 230 medals, including 110 gold.
UCLABruins.com celebrates the school's rich Olympic history with profiles of UCLA Olympians, past and present. First up is 2008 Olympic silver medalist Samantha Peszek, a rising junior on the Bruin gymnastics team.
By Amy Hughes
Samantha Peszek literally grew up in USA Gymnastics.
Both of Peszek's parents were student-athletes at the University of Illinois. Her father, Ed, wrestled and played hockey, and her mother, Luan, was a gymnast. Because Luan went on to work at USA Gymnastics straight out of college and currently serves as the organization's Publications Director, the couple's daughters grew up surrounded by the USA's elite gymnasts.
"Seeing all the high elite world-class gymnasts just sparked my excitement and my passion for the sport," Peszek said. "I'd try to do their moves and their routines and pretend to be them."
"When I was little, I used to tell people 'Oh, yeah. I'm going to the Olympics,' and everyone would say "Um, okay, little girl. You might want to choose a different dream' because I wasn't very good then," she recalled.
Peszek clearly remembers the 1996 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, which earned a Gold Medal at the Atlanta Games when she was nearing age five.
"The first group of athletes that I really looked up to was the 1996 Olympic team," said Peszek. "I remember watching the video of them winning Atlanta over and over. I'm pretty sure the tape is broken because I watched it so many times."
Peszek's gymnastics skills would improve substantially as she grew older. Her dream of becoming an Olympian came true four years ago, when she was named to Team USA for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
"First of all, it's almost indescribable," said Peszek of her thoughts when she was named to the team. "The feeling that you have worked so hard for years and years and years and to finally get chosen for that team is just surreal."
Peszek's path the following months was, sadly, not a smooth one. During a training session leading up to the team's departure for China, she tore the meniscus in her knee.
"There was a lot of talk about pulling an alternate and sending me home before I even got to Beijing," said Peszek.
Unwilling to let an injury end her dream, Peszek was able to recover enough to remain on the team and travel to China. But things did not get easier once she arrived in the host city. Five minutes before the team walked out onto the competition floor for the start of team preliminaries, Peszek hurt her ankle badly. The injury took her out of her best events, and she was only able to compete on uneven bars.
Instead of bemoaning her fate, she instead quickly became a cheerleader for her teammates.
"Of course I would have wanted to contribute more with my gymnastics," she said. "But I just switched roles on the team. Instead of contributing more with my gymnastics, I was getting everyone together and cheering for them and pumping everyone up and being the positive voice in their head."
The Americans went on to win a team silver medal at those Games. Peszek returned to the U.S., had surgery on her damaged knee, and then pushed hard to return to elite competition in the summer of 2009.
"I think I tried to speed everything up because I wanted to get ready for those summer meets," said Peszek. "It probably would have been in my best interests to slow the healing process down and give my whole body a chance to rest and start from ground zero, then build back up to the shape it was in."
Peszek enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 2010. UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field is experienced with bringing elite gymnasts into the collegiate arena, and Peszek is no exception.
"It really seems like the elite girls, as they continue doing gymnastics, seem to have two peaks," said Kondos Field. "One is as they are gearing up to go as far as they can in elite, and then the second peak comes a few years later after their bodies have had time to heal and they come back to the sport. They don't need to put in as many hours as they used to because the muscle memory is still there, so they're not getting the wear and tear and their minds are so sharp competitively. They have the desire, so they put all of that into training a little bit smarter."
As a freshman, Peszek was only able to compete on vault, bars and beam as she recovered not only from her elite career but from . But, those elite skills made an impact for the Bruins, as she became the first gymnast to do a standing full on balance beam in collegiate competition, using the skill to earn the 2011 NCAA balance beam championship with a score of 9.9.
"It's interesting to watch her in event finals because she starts throwing all these skills that she knows she can do," said Kondos Field.
Although she was unable to repeat as the NCAA balance beam champion as a sophomore, Peszek spent much of the season performing what they dubbed the "bluetooth" (hands-free) routine on the beam, using her elite skills to protect an injured wrist.
The 2012 season also saw Peszek return to competing all-around for the first time since Olympic Trials in 2008.
"I didn't really think about it until my first meet this year," said Peszek of her return to all four events. "I kind of felt rushed because I didn't have an event [off] to catch my breath and think about my next routine, but it was nice. It was really nice to be in the full swing of things again. It felt normal, and it felt like it was supposed to. I'm really feeling good about next year and the preparation."
Although Peszek is feeling good athletically and is poised for a stellar 2013 season with the Bruins, she is not deaf to the call of the Olympic Games. She will attend the U.S. Olympic Trials this week in San Jose as a spectator.
"It's going to be horrible," Peszek said with a laugh about attending the Olympic Trials. "Especially seeing my teammates out there from Beijing. I know I'm going to be very jealous and wish I was competing, but at the same time I know how hard and how much it takes for them to get back out there, and I couldn't be more proud.
"A lot of those girls are my best friends. I have to live vicariously through them now, and I told them that. I know it's going to be tough for me to be there, but to support my best friends and not only them but USA Gymnastics and my country and give back so much of what they gave me, I could not be more excited to attend."
Peszek has not ruled out a return to elite gymnastics for the 2016 Games. Since UCLA alum Mohini Bhardwaj made the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, earning a team silver medal and qualifying for floor finals three years after her Bruin career ended in 2001, more 'older' gymnasts have been successfully training and competing in elite-level international gymnastics. One such competitor at this year's Olympic Trials is UCLA alumna Anna Li, who graduated in 2010.
"I don't think I'd ever rule it out," said Peszek of a return to elite gymnastics. "I was watching the Visa Championships on TV and thinking I want to do this again. Then finals rolled around and you realize you have other priorities and obligations to deal with. I'm just taking one day at a time, but Mohini is obviously a huge inspiration. Knowing that she did it and knowing it can be done is a huge incentive. Her coaches are still the same coaches that are here now, so if I did want to pursue it, I know I have the right guidance and the people who can help me on my journey."
Meanwhile, Peszek has no regrets about coming to UCLA and transitioning to collegiate gymnastics.
"Coming to college has been great," said Peszek. "I love UCLA. I wake up every day and am just so blessed to be here and to go to such a fantastic school academically and athletically. The people here are just great people, and I couldn't be in a better place.
"It will kill me to watch the Olympics this summer and not be there, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she continued. "But at the same time, I'm at a different place in my life now. I'm in training and have summer jobs and camps and priorities, and I'm happy with them. I'm still trying to transition from the hardcore elite lifestyle of gymnastics to finding a career that I'm passionate about and finding something else that I love and other goals that I have in my life."
Peszek finds her current situation to be the best of both worlds.
"Getting a full ride to UCLA is the cherry on top of a great ice cream sundae," she said. "It's awesome, and I love it here. Every day I know that I made the right decision."
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