Terror to triumph: Cal gymnast Kyana George’s journey to success

Photo of Kyana George waving at the crowd
Lisi Ludwig/File

Related Posts

A typical meet day for senior Kyana George begins with a tube of red lipstick. Along with her triple wolf turn on beam, eponymously named “The George,” the two-time All-American’s signature red lip is instantly recognizable. But for George, makeup is more than a tool: It’s a means of self-expression and personal empowerment.

“Makeup has always been one of my biggest passions,” George said. “That also helps my confidence because it is a part of me. … It helps me get into a character. Outside of the gym, I’m very quiet, but when it comes to competing, I’m very loud and outgoing. So I guess it blends my two personalities.”

While Cal’s anchor on floor is a self-described homebody, her gymnastics tell a different story. Although the blue and gold’s roster is full of bright stars, George’s high-scoring floor performances and consistency in the all-around set her apart. According to co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, the senior’s persona on floor exudes pure “fire.” Her sensational routine has earned national recognition: George was named second-team All-American on floor and ended the regular season ranked No. 10 in the nation.

Despite her laundry list of accomplishments, George admits her road to athletic success hasn’t always been straightforward. Before her collegiate career began, she dealt with multiple blows to her confidence that made her doubt her future as a gymnast.

Her journey to Cal, and the root of her fears, began at a local gym in her hometown of McKinney, Texas.

F rom an early age, George’s parents already knew their daughter’s work ethic set her apart.

“Kyana once came to me and said, ‘Dad, there are a lot of girls more talented than I am,’ ” said her father, Kevin George. “ ‘But there are a lot of girls that don’t work as hard as I do.’ When she told me that, I felt so warm knowing that this kid, a preteen, saw the difference between talent and hard work.”

While her parents recognized her undeniable determination, George felt an overwhelming sense of fear.

“On all the events, I was terrified,” George said. “I was terrified of bars. … I couldn’t understand how there was no way I could slip off or regrip the bar. (On beam,) I was terrified of the fact that it was 4 inches and I could fall. Falling was my biggest fear. On floor, I was lost tumblingwise.”

George cites the demanding nature of the sport as a source of fear and doubt for all gymnasts, which is compounded by often unforgiving coaches. She recalls being as young as 8 years old when her first coaches told her she “wasn’t enough.”

“Every gymnast has their fears,” George said. “When I tell people I was afraid of every part of gymnastics, that was more the confusing part for some. But I would say that every gymnast has their event or has their one skill that is terrifying for them.”

George’s fears almost pushed her to leave gymnastics. Her parents recall a handful of moments during which she expressed a desire to quit.

“She actually sat both of us down and told us that she was done with the sport,” said her mother, Marisol George.

Photo of Kyana George of Cal Women's Gymnastics mid-air

(Karen Chow/File)

However, George’s parents were reluctant to let their daughter’s potential go to waste. A few days later, George began training at a new gym under retired gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Jaycie Phelps. From the moment she met Phelps and her coaching staff, George started to believe in herself.

“They had this phrase: ‘I can, I will, I am,’ ” George said. “I would always say, ‘I can be confident, I will be confident, I am confident.’ Just having those phrases around the gym really helped me. If I was nervous or scared about attempting a skill, it was OK because they told me it was OK to be nervous and OK to make mistakes.”

Phelps believes that George’s positive attitude allowed her to overcome mental obstacles.

“Kyana has always been that person who will just light up the room,” Phelps said. “You can just feel the positive energy coming out of her.”

George’s positivity and Phelps’ fundamental-based coaching elevated the young gymnast’s career to new heights. Her newfound confidence began to attract Division I programs. As a seventh-grader, she received her first recruitment letter from Utah, ironically the only Pac-12 opponent the Bears lost to this season. In 2013, George began an impressive streak of top 10 finishes at Junior Olympic National Championships, culminating in a first-place finish on floor in 2017. She eventually became a three-time Junior Olympic national team member.

However, with George’s rising success came additional obstacles. While the NCAA restricts student-athletes to 20 hours of training per week during a given season, George more than doubled that limit during her pre-collegiate career. As a high school student, she trained for upward of 40 hours per week and even began attending a new school.

Although she maintains that she wouldn’t change her pre-collegiate training regimen, George still laments the memories she gave up for her dreams.

“It paid off. I wouldn’t change anything now,” the gymnast said. “Back then, it was kind of (hard) seeing everybody’s pictures being posted, like going to dances or going to football games. … That was something I felt like I was missing out on.”

Photo of Kyana George

(Kelley Fox/KLC Photos/Courtesy)

When it came time to pick a college, George prioritized an environment that would allow her to balance her life outside of the gym with her passion for gymnastics. Cal seemed like an obvious choice from the onset.

“My club coaches told me more about Justin (Howell) and Liz (Crandall-Howell) and about how they coach,” George said. “They know I’m more loving and that I needed someone who was going to be like my parents inside and outside of the gym. … Even talking to other schools, there were other college coaches saying, ‘Well if you’re not going to choose us, go to Justin and Liz. There’s just something special about them.’ ”

For George’s parents, discovering Cal’s coaching staff was a “blessing.”

“They make me feel extremely comfortable,” her mother said. “I don’t have to worry about any toxic environments.”

However, when the pandemic put an abrupt stopper on all sports, the all-arounder’s career and the family she had discovered at UC Berkeley were thrown into an uneasy limbo. Like many college students, George went back home, awaiting news for the upcoming season.

“Over the pandemic, she came home and she spent time with us,” her father said. “We got a chance to see her maturity. Everything that she did as a kid and teen, she has doubled down on. … I don’t think she realizes, but she is like my jewel. She is precious to me.”

Rather than dwell on disappointment, George used her months away from training to plan her life beyond the gym. In fact, she initially considered opting out of the 2021 regular season to pursue her career interests.

“It was a time where I was more focused on my future,” George said. “It did allow me to get my minor and see future job opportunities and seek out internships. I was kind of like, ‘Do I just want to go straight into my future? This would be a great shift.’ ”

Despite her prior doubts, however, George — as she did early in her career — pressed on. She finished the year as a key piece in one of Cal’s best seasons in program history. But more than one year after the pandemic began, the senior finds herself in a similar position. A fifth year of eligibility remains on the table for George.

Although she’s made no formal commitments, lessons from the gymnast’s past have taught her how to stick a landing. Whether or not she opts to return, one thing is clear: Kyana George’s decision will be made with confidence.

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