There was no room for error.
If Cal women’s gymnastics wanted to make its first trip back to Nationals in 24 years, Yuleen Sternberg would have to hit a clean routine. After a fall on bars put the Bears in jeopardy, all eyes were on the sophomore uneven bars specialist. It was hit or go home.
But for Yuleen, the concept of home has not always been so straightforward.
When Yuleen was seven years old, she attended gymnastics classes at Golden Bear Gymnastics in Berkeley. When she arrived each afternoon, she would watch the tail end of college practice. She saw girls a decade older than her and two feet taller than her practice skills she could only dream of one day trying herself.
When her team attended meets at Haas Pavilion, Yuleen envisioned herself under the bright lights with the Cal logo across her chest.
“I came to these meets and I was like the kid in the handstand contest,” Yuleen said. “I still have my T-shirt that college students signed for me.”
Yuleen grew up in the northwest part of Berkeley, not 10 minutes from the UC Berkeley campus. As a kid, she used to rollerblade down Telegraph Avenue, holding hands with her mother who would run alongside.
“I love Berkeley,” Yuleen said. “It’s such a cool, diverse environment. I think it’s cool to see the improvement that people can make while living in Berkeley.”
That affinity for the city of Berkeley is shared among the entire Sternberg family –– Yuleen’s mom, Junko, a native of Japan, and her dad, Hal, who hails from Brooklyn.
However, when Yuleen was 11, her mother decided that in the interest of her career and Yuleen’s education, the two of them would relocate to Japan. At the time, Junko was studying audiology and cochlear implant technology, having gone deaf in her 20s.
The two of them settled in Nagoya, Japan, a large city about four hours southwest of Tokyo. Yuleen attended an international school, but her classes were taught in Japanese. She also continued to pursue gymnastics, and it was in the gym that she experienced the greatest culture shock.
“It was really strict in Japan,” Yuleen explained. “There were a lot of things that the coaches required of us in terms of respect. It was really intimidating.”
But the challenges of Yuleen’s new environment were present even before she stepped foot in the gym each afternoon. Every day when school was over, Yuleen would walk to the train station, take the train to where her bike was parked and then ride her bike for half an hour to her gym. By the time she arrived, she was already exhausted, and practice had not even started yet. And the first thing the coaches demanded of the gymnasts when practice begun?
After a long and physically demanding practice, Yuleen would get back on her bike, ride to the train station, and not arrive home until about 11 p.m.
“Very frequently she would freeze going there and freeze coming back, very late at night,” recounted Hal.
The gym she attended, Chukyo Gymnastics Club, was tiny and located far outside the bustling city of Nagoya. When Yuleen first arrived, the facility did not have a floor large enough to practice floor routines –– tumbling practice was confined to a small strip of carpet.
Socially, it was just as difficult. Yuleen not only had to adapt to a brand new culture in Japan, but was separated from her peers by a language barrier.
“I was super hesitant to become close with my teammates,” Yuleen recounted.
It was exhausting, but for the young gymnast, it was a small price to pay if it meant she would one day achieve her dream: joining the Cal gymnastics team.
That sought-after return trip to Berkeley would require one more pit stop. It was met, however, with little hesitation from Yuleen. After a four-year stay in Nagoya, she and her mother relocated to Melbourne, Australia.
“She was happy as soon as she stepped foot in Australia from Japan,” Hal recalled. “I think it was a bit of a relief.”
In Australia, just about everything was different. Yuleen was back to speaking English at school, which her father proudly boasts she did not forget while living in Japan. Her new gym had no shortage of floor space — in fact, it had multiple competition-sized floors. And her new coach, with his thick Australian accent and heavy dependence on the word “lovely” was anything but militant.
“She’s such a lovely girl and actually she fit in with all the other girls in the squad really well,” said her coach John Hart.
It was in Australia that Yuleen’s gymnastics career truly took off. In 2011, she won the Australian National Club Championship, and in 2012 she placed 11th at the Australian Championships. To this day, a poster hangs inside Waverley Gymnastics Academy commemorating Yuleen’s Club Championship victory.
Yuleen ostensibly hit a bump in the road when she was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans in her elbow, which would require surgery. The recovery was long and tiresome, and it kept Yuleen sidelined for about six months.
The injury came with a silver lining, however, as Yuleen began to develop a strong relationship with her physical therapist. She not only provided physical treatment, but also helped Yuleen to overcome the mental obstacles associated with her injury. For Yuleen, these interactions were a source of inspiration.
“After college, I’m looking into (physical therapy),” Yuleen said. “I mean I’ve been a patient of PT and I’ve seen a lot of things through gymnastics that have kind of inspired me to want to do PT.”
Because of her international experiences, Yuleen has developed an appreciation for the universality of medical treatment. Physical therapy is a career that Yuleen could carry with her to any place in the world, no matter where she ends up.
Finally, during Yuleen’s junior year of high school, the two made the long-awaited trip back to Berkeley (much to the dismay of Coach Hart, who had offered to help Yuleen obtain Australian citizenship and let her live with his family). Yuleen enrolled at Berkeley High School, and returned to train at Head Over Heels Athletic Arts in Emeryville.
The time to begin the recruiting process was fast approaching if Yuleen wanted to join the Cal gymnastics team. However, in the whirlwind of settling back in at home, Yuleen’s parents were unaware of the complicated processes involved in recruitment.
“We were oblivious,” Hal said. “Everything was happening so fast.”
If it had not been for one of Yuleen’s coaches at Head Over Heels, Yuleen’s dream of making the team may never have been realized. She single-handedly compiled videos and sent them off to UC Davis, and of course, UC Berkeley, in hopes that Yuleen might get the call.
Yuleen visited UC Davis, but ultimately she and her family knew that it was UC Berkeley all the way.
“We very quickly made a decision to focus on Berkeley and just drop Davis,” Hal recalled. “It was all or nothing there.”
The Sternbergs’ gamble was not in vain. Cal head coach Justin Howell came through for Yuleen, giving her the opportunity to join the team as a walk on.
And so the story goes.
It was hit or go home.
Yuleen took a deep breath in, saluted the judges and began her routine. Having sat the entire rest of the meet in anticipation of this moment, her muscles were cold. Even so, she let no detail go unaccounted for: legs straight, toes pointed.
Physically, she was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but mentally she was back in Berkeley, practicing this routine just as she had all season.
She released the bar and her feet found the floor.
Breathe out. Salute.
There was an instant of silence that was quickly overtaken by the cheering and applause of Yuleen’s teammates. Her meticulous efforts had earned her a 9.825, ultimately sending the Bears back to their first NCAA Championships since 1992.
“It’s crazy to look back and think that I dealt with that pressure,” she says. “But in the moment I really just didn’t think about that at all.”
Yuleen’s gymnastics journey has truly come full circle. The team still practices at Golden Bear, the same facility that Yuleen attended as a young girl. They compete in Haas Pavilion, but Yuleen is no longer looking on from the stands.
“It’s mind blowing that I’m the one actually competing in Haas,” Yuleen said.
Through three countries and many homes, Yuleen Sternberg has found her way back to exactly the place she started. She is neither the same gymnast, nor the same person that she was when she left, and, she will tell you, these changes were only for the better.
Her father put it simply: “Yulee is happy as she could’ve ever been, and doing as good as she could ever do. So a very happy ending I’d have to say.”