Cal women’s gymnastics learns to roll with punches of a pandemic

Photo of Kyana George
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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It’s 6 a.m. Freshman gymnast Elise Byun wakes up on her first alarm and hauls herself out of bed to receive her daily symptom screening by 6:30 a.m. After testing, Byun and the rest of her team attend practice from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., followed by conditioning from 11 a.m. to noon. After a four-hour practice, Byun returns to her dorm and attends a full day of classes, rinses and repeats the next day.

As the women’s gymnastics team falls into the routine of grueling 6 a.m. wake-ups, they do so amid unprecedented obstacles. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all the members of the team were forced to take time off of gymnastics. The call to step away from the gym was particularly unusual — gymnastics technically has no offseason. For some, it was the most time they’d taken off since they’d started the sport.

“Having, let’s say, a three-month break was probably the longest break any of us has ever had since we started the sport at probably like age 6,” said Byun. As a first-year student, the demands of returning to competitive shape while adjusting to college life are understandably daunting.

Furthermore, pandemic restrictions have delayed the Bears’ preseason preparations; instead of starting in September, the team only resumed training in mid-October. Combined with several months off, rushing into intense practices has created another obstacle for the Bears.

To top it off, the team is still unsure when or if there will be a gymnastics season at all. Unlike football or basketball, gymnastics is still awaiting the release of a season schedule. For senior Victoria Salem, the uncertainty of this season is particularly personal. Salem has been sidelined by multiple ACL tears since her freshman season. Within her three years at Cal, Salem has only participated in an exhibition lineup, meaning her scores were not counted toward the team’s overall total, halfway through her junior season. Salem’s senior season is possibly her last chance to fully experience college gymnastics. Her first taste of competition in four years is still ostensibly mired in doubt.

However, rather than dwelling on the uncontrollable circumstances of a global pandemic, the women’s gymnastics team is laser-focused on what’s in its control. In fact, many members of the team have used their breaks as a meaningful pause from a mentally taxing sport.

For senior Kyana George, the pandemic has been a time to recharge and prepare for life after her athletic career. “Actually the pandemic helped me a lot,” she said. “I needed rest. … Being able to step back and look at what’s going to happen after gymnastics gave me a very good opportunity.” George, who was a second-team all-American last season, is expected to play a pivotal role as an all-around competitor.

Salem seems equally optimistic, seeing the time she lost due to injury and the pandemic as an opportunity for self-discovery. In addition to gunning for a spot on the competitive lineup, Salem is the president of the Student-Athlete Business Network, an organization she joined while recovering from injury.

“When I got hurt the first time, I was a little bit lost, unsure of what to do. … One of the things that my life basically revolves around had been taken away,” Salem said. “(But) because I had more time on my hands, I had the opportunity to experience other things that I feel like I wouldn’t have put myself out there to do if I hadn’t gotten injured.”

As for the rest of the team, the senior squad envisions a culture that is both inclusive and successful despite the inevitable hurdles the pandemic has created. They’ve established themselves as a support network, especially for new freshmen.

“We just want to make sure that we create an environment that is good for our newcomers to get acclimated,” said Salem. “It’s been kind of tough because the situation obviously is different, … but we really just want to be mentors for them.”

It’s clear that even amid the obstacles of a global pandemic, the women’s gymnastics team looks to repeat the successes of last season — all with a smile on their faces.

Aiko Sudijono covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].