Sailing against the wind: Kyte Crigger’s resilient journey through gymnastics

Kyle Crigger
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it — that is how Cal men’s gymnastics team captain Kyte Crigger reached where he is today.

Stirred by the wind atop Grizzly Peak in Berkeley and by the news that his senior season was over, Crigger sat and pondered his trajectory.

This year alone has been a tempest, but Crigger is no stranger to staring into the eye of the storm and simply rising above. Though his gymnastics career and senior year as a Bear have been muddied by challenges no one could have predicted, overcoming hardships is in Crigger’s blood and first name — by turning obstacles into opportunities to fly, he has become a stronger athlete and person alike.

Through all of the adversity, gymnastics has been the wind beneath his wings.

His first encounter with gymnastics was when he was 6 years old — tagging along with his mother in his hometown of Manassas, Virginia, he used to go watch his older sister’s gymnastics classes at the nearby gym. Soon enough, a coach asked him to join the trampoline class, and Crigger eventually transitioned to taking gymnastics lessons of his own.

Unlike some athletes, who were discovered as child prodigies very early on, Crigger’s takeoff as a gymnast was not smooth.

“He wasn’t flexible, and he couldn’t run straight,” recalled his mother, Rika Crigger. “To be honest, I am very surprised that he grew up to be like this.”

Before starting gymnastics, Crigger participated in sports such as soccer and karate, which were popular among other children as well as his siblings. What drew him to gymnastics even at a young age, however, were its unique challenges, which no other sports offered — challenges that elevated him every time he overcame one or learned a new skill.

“Looking back, (gymnastics) was definitely the most challenging. I wasn’t strong, I was a skinny twig, I didn’t know how to point my toes — all those things didn’t come naturally,” Crigger said. “I started at the bottom of all those people who were there.”

Crigger was hardly within reach of the gymnastics world’s limelight until much later in his career — he didn’t participate in major competitions until high school. Just as he was starting to show promise, in his very first practice as part of his high school’s gymnastics team, he severely broke his ankle and underwent surgery, which required a screw to be placed in his bone for support and mobility.

“He was practicing the new dismount of the rings,” Rika Crigger said as she reflected on the injury. “I thought, ‘All this is over.’ ”

Though the injury seemed to be a setback that threatened to end his gymnastics career, it ended up being a headwind that changed his course, taking him to a higher level and renewing his commitment to the sport.

Once he recovered from the injury, Crigger showed a remarkable transition — after placing 10th on the floor in the 2014 Junior Olympic National Championships, he evolved into a champion in the same event the following year and earned second all-around in the same meet. In his junior year, Crigger qualified for the 2016 P&G U.S. Gymnastics Championships, the highest-level national competition.

His talent and explosive power fascinated the coaching staff at not only Cal, but also many other collegiate teams, including Michigan, Air Force and Illinois. Though some of those teams offered full-ride scholarships, he chose Cal for its prestige as the No. 1 public university and for the abundant opportunities and new experiences the Bay Area has to offer.

But the weather in the Bay, as Crigger would come to find out, isn’t always sunny.

What awaited him in Berkeley were numerous storms that blurred his flying path, including another injury his freshman year, a new environment with different training routines, hardships that come from living far away from home and expensive out-of-state tuition, all of which challenged him more than he ever expected.

“At first, to be honest, I wanted to drop out of Berkeley after freshman year,” Crigger confessed. “I didn’t expect it to be that hard living away from home, and it was so much money.”

What flipped his outlook was an opportunity presented outside the gym.

“Summer after my freshman year, I was able to land an internship in San Francisco,” Crigger said. “After that happened, I realized that it was all worth it, all the struggles and everything. I committed myself to it and never looked back.”

The reason why he was able to persevere through these initial hardships, however, may have been thanks to the distinct qualities embedded in his name. Born to a former Japanese singer and an American bass player, he was given a name that not only puns “kite” in English, but also consists of two Japanese kanji letters, one meaning “refined” and the other “chord.”

As implied by his name, his cultivated disciplines made him a strong leader who connects and inspires people both in and outside the gym. His passion for his sport, likewise, often strikes a chord with his teammates.

Studiousness and enthusiasm for gymnastics are the widely agreed upon, distinctive personality traits of Crigger. Cal head coach J.T. Okada describes him as very proactive, and teammate Jonathan Wang admires Crigger’s determined character.

“It’s pretty clear that he loves the sport, and he’s willing to put whatever he can to compete at the best level,” Wang said. “He is really a focused person, sometimes too focused, I think. But he is definitely someone that sets a goal and is really committed to achieving it.”

As a graduate of the lauded Haas School of Business, former president of the Student-Athlete Business Network and a three-time recipient of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation All-Academic honors, Crigger centered his college experience around balancing a rigorous academic schedule with his commitment to training.

Arguably more important than his ability to manage a crowded schedule, Crigger’s leadership stands out in the way he’s helped turn his team into a tight-knit community.

He realized early on during his time as captain the importance of being connected as a team because the absence of it was causing some of the members to lose motivation.

“When people have a sense of community and family, it helps keep them motivated,” Crigger emphasized. “We weren’t close, so we lost the fun in gymnastics.”

In order to strengthen the bond, Crigger came up with multiple ideas, including team dinners and extra team meetings to go over performances. One of his innovative attempts to connect the team was through interviews — freshmen were given notebooks to interview all of the team members and were asked to make presentations once they finished, which turned out to be more successful than he expected.

Okada recognizes the impact of Crigger’s leadership and the way his creativity in coming up with team bonding activities has made a lasting impression on the underclassmen on the squad.

“He is a very thoughtful leader, and he really tries to strike a balance between friendship and leadership, sometimes seeing beyond what they want to hear,” Okada said of Crigger’s relationship with his teammates.

After three and a half years of dedication and leadership, one usually expects to see their hard work manifest in a final meet or performance. Crigger’s gymnastics career, however, was unexpectedly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, robbing him of the chance at a storybook ending.

“After the whole news came out that the rest of the season got canceled, I went up to the Grizzly Peak, just by myself, then asked, ‘What has gymnastics taught me?’ ” Crigger recollected. “One is to make every obstacle an opportunity to become better. The second thing is to never get too comfortable.”

Crigger is planning on working in the field of investment banking here in the Bay Area once the pandemic’s shadow has lifted. He intends to bring the important skills he learned during his shortened career in gymnastics to life after graduation. Crigger also plans on pursuing CrossFit as a way to maintain a relationship with athletics and has set his sights on the national championship, a stage he’s familiar with by now.

By turning adversities into power to ascend, Crigger has evolved into a leader with a strong mindset through 16 years of gymnastics. Whether he is a gymnast, a leader, an investment analyst or a CrossFit athlete, his fundamental character always stays the same.

“I just want to commit myself to something so that I can make a good impact,” he said.

With passion and commitment, Crigger flies not just wherever the wind takes him, but higher.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].