"Picking yourself up when you’re down is sometimes the hardest thing to do
especially when the whole world is watching you." ~Samantha Peszek
Samantha Peszek was a member of the United States' Silver Medal winning 2008 Olympics womens gymnastics team. Following her elite gymnastics career, she went on to attend and compete for the the UCLA Bruins. She is a 17-time All-American, the 2011 and 2015 NCAA balance beam champion, and the 2015 NCAA all around co-champion. Very little came easy as injuries nearly derailed her career. But like most champions do, she rose above all obstacles to achieve greatness. Samantha sat down with Youth1 to talk about the highs and lows of her career and offers some sage advice for youth athletes today. This is her Y1 on 1:
You've competed at the highest levels of gymnastics. What have sports taught you most?
Gymnastics has taught me so many life lessons like discipline, perseverance and mental toughness. It’s hard to pick just one, but the lesson I use on a daily basis is time management. I had to learn at an early age how to get all my homework finished as well as have five hour practices each day. In high school, I would miss weeks at a time for competitions, so I always had to make sure I kept up with my schoolwork and had still time to hang out with my friends. I love that now in my life, I am able to balance work, fitness, and still have time for a social life!
Do you have one or two mentors that impacted you over your journey in sports?
My parents were both collegiate athletes and from the beginning they’ve been my biggest supporters and mentors. They always told me that I could do anything I set my mind to and that is the message that I like to pass on to other kids now. My coach growing up, Peter Zhao, always taught me the importance of respect and hard work. My collegiate coach, Miss Val, is a great mentor and will continue to mentor me in life even outside of gymnastics. I’ve been lucky to have such a great support system throughout this journey.
You have many to speak of, but share with us a few of the more memorable moments in your sports career?
I really do have too many to have a favorite, but one that is the most recent is my very last competition ever. It was the 2015 NCAA Championships and I already knew, win or lose, it was the last competition of my life after 21 years of doing the sport. I wanted to enjoy it, but I was so nervous. I won the all-around title the day before, which is a huge accomplishment and a first for me, but beam was my pride and joy. It was my favorite event, the event I worked the hardest on and I knew I could win. I was adding risky skills to my routine with an “all-in” attitude and I nailed it. I finished my routine and I knew that I had just won my very last competition ever. To finish on that peaceful note, doing everything in my power and having no regrets is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
You qualified for the Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing to compete in multiple events but injured your ankle in warm-ups restricting you to doing only the uneven bars. How did that affect your psyche throughout your time there?
It was definitely tough because I wanted to compete in all of the events and really show the world what I was capable of, but I knew I was representing the United States of America and it was my duty to do whatever was needed of me. So I became the best teammate I could be and helping the girls any way I could and I got to compete bars. It was a huge learning experience for me and I’m proud of myself for how I handled it. Picking yourself up when you’re down is sometimes the hardest thing to do especially when the whole world is watching you.
What was the feeling like to earn a silver medal with your team at those Olympics?
It was surreal. I had dreamt of that moment ever since I watched the Magnificent Seven team when I was 5. I saw them walk into the arena and the crowd was chanting “USA, USA” and when I walked into the Beijing arena, I saw more American flags than Chinese flags and that moment was when it all came full circle for me. I couldn’t believe I was actually at the Olympics and to win a silver medal with my team was the cherry on top. It’s almost indescribable because it was such a special moment for us. We had all trained years to be able to stand on that podium. It was a dream come true.
You signed with UCLA and went on to become a three-time Scholastic All-American and were inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame Class of 2013 as a member of the 2007 women's world championship team. Looking back on that, how much individual pride did you feel from those accomplishments?
I was extremely proud, not necessarily of the “titles” I won, but of all the hard work I put into it. I set goals and stuck with it for so many years and my hard work paid off. So for that, I am extremely proud.
Injuries played a major role in your gymnastics career, torn Achilles tendon, torn labrum, injured ankle to name a few. How did you manage to pick yourself up and persevere?
As crazy as it sounds, every time I got hurt, I would come back stronger as an athlete. I would always work on my mental game or my flexibility, which was my weakest aspect of gymnastics. When I was able to train again, I was really hungry to get back to work, but I came back better because of the work I did when I was injured. It’s never fun to be injured, but for me I always looked at it as a little sign that I needed to take a break and focus on my weaknesses and that mentality always worked out for me.
What advice do you have for youth athletes and what pitfalls should they look out for?
I think being "burned out" is the biggest problem with youth athletes these days. I think it’s important for them to be passionate about the sport they’re doing and it should come from them as an athlete. When the parents or the coaches or even friends want it more than the athlete, then that’s a bad sign. In my opinion, the athletes that make it the furthest in any sport always have a genuine love for the sport and always strive to get better no matter what. “Champions are made when no one else is watching.”- John Wooden.
Specializing in sports is such a hot topic. Would you advise youth athletes to play multiple sports or focus on one?
I think it is important to try a few different sports when you’re younger and see what you like best. With my genes and my passion, it was clear gymnastics was the path for me. However, I played soccer and I danced when I was younger as well and I loved it!
Is there anything on your journey that you would have changed or done differently?
Actually, no. It was always a goal of mine to “leave no stone unturned” and I think it is the reason that I was able to finish peacefully from the sport. I’m also really proud of the fact that I got to experience gymnastics on many different levels (JO program, Elite program, National team, and NCAA gymnastics) which is pretty rare.
You've competed with and against some of the greatest gymnasts during your time and been coached by some of the best. Are there a few that stand out as most memorable to compete with as teammates or be coached by?
I can’t really pick a few people out because there has been so many gymnasts and coaches that have impacted me as a gymnast. I became best friends with the girls on the national team when I was just 12, and we’re still really close. This sport is really demanding at times, so it’s great to be friends with other girls that know what you’re going through. Even though we didn’t live in the same place, we were always in communication and motivating each other along the way. I think that is a big misconception about gymnastics. Even though it is an individual sport for the most part, we are all really good friends.
You were brought on to do color commentating for the Pac-12 Network in January. Is the media side something you want to pursue?
Definitely. I majored in Communications at UCLA and have been involved in broadcasting for PAC-12 Networks and USA Gymnastics. I love telling stories about sports and my dream job would be to host a sports talk show!
Aside from sports, what are some of your other interests?
I love hiking or anything active really. Since I’m not doing gymnastics anymore, I’ve been able to go hiking and cycling a lot more and I also went snowboarding for the first time this year. I love experiencing new things and exploring new places. I travel a lot for my job, but I also like to travel a lot for fun too!
Are there any charitable foundations you are part of or work you do on the philanthropy side that you'd like to share with our readers?
For the last few years, I’ve been an “All-Star ambassador” for NEGU. It is a foundation that brings joy to children fighting cancer. NEGU stands for “Never Ever Give Up” and I’ve done hospital visits where we give out joy jars full of activities and little gifts to put a smile on a child’s face. It’s such a great foundation and I’m honored to be part of it.
Follow Samantha on Twitter @samanthapeszek
For more on NEGU or to donate, visit www.negu.org
Edited by: Kathleen Nolan
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