A scared cub to a mighty lion: How Cal gymnast Caleb Rickard leads by example

Photo of Caleb Rickard of Cal Men's Gymnastics
Nathan Phillips | KLC Fotos/Courtesy

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espite the few spectators in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unusual level of excitement and energy filled Maturi Pavilion. There he stands: Cal’s team captain and top vault performer Caleb Rickard on a mat for the final round of the event.

“That was a special moment. I watch that now, and I still get chills,” said head coach JT Okada on Rickard’s vault performance at this year’s NCAA championship.

A commentator mentions Cal men’s gymnastics’s previous financial struggles, which once put the program on a chopping block, as Rickard runs up to the vault. In a split second, he twists and turns high up in the air, finishing with a rock-solid landing.

Emotions explode. Like a lion on the peak of the cliff, Rickard barks, pumps his fists and jumps up and down. There are cheers, applause and high-fives from the crowd and his fellow competitors.

That intense, explosive moment was my first impression of Rickard. He was a top vault scorer throughout the season and holds three of Cal’s top four highest vault scores in program history. Not to mention, he was a junior team co-captain and finished fifth in the NCAA championship.

Combined with his stalk physique and mighty cheers at the meets, as well as the numerous accolades he earned in the past year alone, everything seemed to suggest that he was one of those flawless, borderline intimidating athletes.

Contrary to my expectations, however, everything else about Rickard seemed to point otherwise: a punctual, pagelong and detailed reflection of the meet sent to my email box over the pandemic, an amiable, welcoming personality during a Zoom interview and a surprising musical talent in playing the saxophone. Those details about Rickard transformed my perception of him on and off of the mat.

very mighty lion, however, grows up as a frightened cub. As a rather sensitive kid who preferred to be gifted a little pet guinea pig over iPhones or PlayStations for his birthday present, Rickard was first introduced to gymnastics as a result of his fear of heights.

“When he was going for a picture with his siblings on a little bench table at Walmart, he was too scared to go. He could have climbed up to the table, but he was terrified,” said his mother, Maria Rickard. “We said no, that’s it. We’re going to get him doing something, (so that) at least he knows how to fall properly.”

Though at first trembling, once he started, Rickard’s commitment was firm. Ever since he decided to pursue the sport of gymnastics on his own will, numerous obstacles stood in his way.

One of those obstacles was his father’s temporary unemployment during Rickard’s early high school days, in which his gymnastics fee took a toll on his family. To continue pursuing the sport and to support his parents, Rickard voluntarily started a coaching job at the gym during weekends.

“He never complained about having to work,” said his father, Steven Rickard. “That prepared him for Cal. He was very focused on doing what he needed to do to accomplish his goals.”

Continuing the expensive sport of gymnastics was a family decision, and, together with his parents and four other siblings, Rickard cooperated to make it work. Along the way, he received ample emotional support from his parents. His father, who stayed up all night to do homework with him, never misses one of Rickard’s gymnastics meets. His mother, meanwhile, is so invested in Rickard’s success that she often anxiously flees from the bleachers during her son’s performances.

Growing up in a supportive family nurtured Rickard into both a wise, calm leader and friendly personality. In college, he brought those qualities to lead his new family at Cal. As a captain, he rarely tries to prove himself with words, much like his father whom he so dearly looks up to. Instead, he leads by example. Rickard also has a kind of “nice guy” facade to him — contrary to his explosiveness on the mat — which makes him an approachable leader.

“He’s really a nice guy,” said teammate Kyle Abe. “But he’s someone who draws a lot more appreciation, and people want to work hard for him because he himself works so hard at the gym.”

Surprisingly, however, choosing the Cal gymnastics family was not his initial plan. He first committed to the Air Force Academy over Cal, but his admission to the Falcons was revoked due to his childhood asthma. In a particularly desolate state, he found a shining glimmer of hope in Cal and was able to reclaim a spot on the gymnastics team thanks to Okada.

“I was devastated and didn’t know how I was going to compete at college, which was my ultimate goal,” Rickard said. “I am still grateful to this day that the coach helped me get a spot on the team.”

he road up to that explosive moment at the NCAA tournament and fortuitous landing at Cal wasn’t an easy track, either. Not only was his lineup during the freshman year limited, but his shoulder injury in his sophomore year also made it difficult for him to compete satisfactorily. At the start of his junior year, in which he was named a team captain along with junior Darren Wong, Rickard was surprised.

“(The selection) definitely came as a surprise to me because I’m not the most outstanding and well-known gymnast on the team,” Rickard said. “I like to work on the background, leading by example.”

What seemed like a cloudy year of virtual meets, however, became a turning point in his gymnastics career, which brings us back to that NCAA moment. With top vault scores and national acknowledgment, the clouds seem to have cleared. Now, Rickard sees himself as a future gymnast.

“My goal this year is to qualify for the U.S. national team,” Rickard said. “After freshman year and COVID-19, I didn’t think it was really possible anymore. But seeing how I stuck up against the top guys in the country, it’s a little more realistic now.”

His newfound trajectory now bridges the gap between Rickard’s intense, explosive moment at the NCAA tournament and approachable personality, both of which first appeared contradictory to one another.

None of it, however, was built in a day. Starting with fear, after numerous struggles and disappointments, Rickard rose to the position of captain while earning his underclassmen teammates’ admiration off the mat. On the mat, while leading the team by example, he now enters into his final year at Cal, which will likely determine his future path.

Once a tiny cub, the mighty lion will make a final roar at Cal this season, hoping to echo loudly throughout the stands of every stadium he competes in.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].