Overcoming Obstacles and Going for Gold: Olympian Samantha Peszek
At just 19 years old, Samantha Peszek has already has accomplished more than many of us will in a lifetime. Born in Indianapolis in 1991, she began gymnastics and launched her outstanding career in 1993. In 2004, at just 12 years old, she became the youngest member of the U.S. Junior National Gymnastics team, competing for the U.S. internationally. In 2007, she became the world champion and in 2008 she was named to the U.S. Olympic team, where she helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the team competition. After the Olympics, Peszek went back to finish her senior year in high school, had shoulder surgery, and accepted a full gymnastics scholarship to the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA). Teen Voices freelance writer (and former Girl in Action herself!) Jen Rubino had the chance to interview Peszek about her incredible career. Peszek had originally planned to try to be part of the Olympic team again this year, but once at college, decided that college and all the responsibilities that come with being a student-athlete there needed to take priority. Peszek speaks about what it was like to be an Olympic athlete four years ago and how it is different for her now.
Teen Voices (TV): Did you miss out on normal childhood activities to train?
Samantha Peszek (SP): Growing up, I didn’t miss out on anything. I used to take ballet and tap and I also played soccer for a few years. I was a really active kid and I always wanted to be playing some kind of sport or making a competition out of anything I could. When I started becoming a more dedicated gymnast, I realized I didn’t have time to play other sports. I wanted to solely focus on gymnastics because that’s what I had the most passion for.
TV: Unlike many elite gymnasts, you attended a private high school as opposed to doing home schooling. Was it difficult to balance gymnastics training and attend a regular school?
SP: I remember a few times it was difficult to balance my gymnastics/school/traveling schedule, but I had been practicing time management since grade school, when I had to miss class for competitions. It really came naturally to me because I wanted the best of both worlds, so I always worked hard to make sure I could be the best gymnast I could be as well as get straight A’s. I was always really social, so what I found hardest was to continue to do “normally” when I was so busy with training and studying. However, I went to all the football games, basketball games, and baseball games that I could and I always found a way to attend dances and other school spirit functions. I consider myself really lucky to be fortunate enough to live a regular high school kid’s life on top of winning international medals for my country.
TV: What was it like being a member of the 2008 Olympic team?
SP: It would be impossible for me to sum up the Olympic Games because it was just so remarkable that no words could ever do it justice. There was so much pride that came with being on the USA team. I couldn’t have felt more honored to represent my country and more excited about the hard work and obstacles I knew we would have to overcome there. We were ready to challenge the world and we fought to maintain world-class status. The most incredible moment for me was walking out into the arena and seeing more American flags than Chinese flags at that moment. I have never felt more proud to be an American.
TV: You injured your ankle while training in Beijing. Was it hard to only compete on the uneven bars in the qualification competition and then have to watch your teammates compete in the rest of the Olympics?
SP: Of course, I would have rather competed in the rest of the Olympic Games like my teammates. But it was important for the team to move on and not dwell on something that we could not change. After I injured myself, I immediately switched roles from competitor to motivator, and that made me really appreciate teamwork in a different way. It killed me not to be able to contribute with my gymnastics, but I did everything else in my power to help our team to succeed. I was proud to stand on the awards podium with my team when we earned the silver medal.
TV: Your mom works for USA Gymnastics. Was it ever difficult being an elite gymnast and having your mom work for the gymnastics federation?
SP: It was never difficult or awkward for my mom to work at USA gymnastics because she has been working there since before I was born. I grew up around gymnastics and around world-class athletes. I think their work ethic and dedication was something I was able to pick up at a young age. Since my mom worked at the office, I went to many big competitions, and I think that by watching the girls, I developed a sense of direction: I knew that I wanted to be one of those “cool” gymnasts one day.
SP: Right now, I am very happy to be a part of the UCLA gymnastics team. I won the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) national champion balance beam title and our team took second behind Alabama in the team competition. I’ve been working hard on getting and staying healthy and getting back into tip-top shape.
TV: Now that the Summer Olympics are approaching, will you be on the team and why or why not?
SP: No, I won’t be in the Olympics this year. I was really focused this year on competing in the NCAA and I feel good about how that went. I decided not to try for London this summer because I am focusing on college and all the responsibilities that come with being a student-athlete. Of course, I am still involved with USA gymnastics and will be attending Olympic Trials this summer June 28-July 1. I would be lying if I said watching the Olympics on TV this summer will be easy, but I felt as though I could not give 100% effort to the training and the long preparation it takes to try out for the Olympics with school and other priorities on my plate. I have the utmost faith in our United States national team and coordinators to fulfill their gymnastics duties and to make us proud this summer. The girls vying for a spot on the team are some of the most disciplined and passionate girls out there and I can't wait to see the amazing things they will accomplish in London.
TV: You worked hard to accomplish your dream of making the Olympic team. Do you have any advice for teens about how to accomplish dreams and goals?
SP: The one thing I would tell kids is that if you have a dream, no matter how impossible it may seem, go after it. My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and after I made the Olympic team, I knew that was true. Also, if you want something bad enough, you have to chase after it and give 100 percent to it.
TV: Are you enjoying college?
SP: I love being in college at UCLA. I am really enjoying my classes and training with a big, fun team. The weather is amazing and there is so much to do and see. I haven’t found a downside to it yet. I usually wake up every morning, look out my window, and say, “Wow, I can’t believe I go to school here!”
TV: Many former Olympians make gymnastics a part of their life after they retire from the sport through motivational speaking, appearances, writing books, coaching and working at gymnastics camps. Do you think you will do that?
SP: I think gymnastics will always be a part of my life, but I am hoping to have a profession outside of the gymnastics world as well. I am not quite sure what I want to do when I graduate. I like to keep my options open. Right now I am interning with the Wooden Athletic Fund at UCLA and I am learning a lot about being part of a staff. I have always had an interest in getting involved with the entertainment industry. I am just trying to learn as much as I can from the amazing people I have met so far in LA and see where it takes me. I will always want to stay connected with gymnastics in some way though.
TV: Do you enjoy having younger gymnasts look up to you?
SP: I really do enjoy the little kids who look up to me. I like when a kid asks a question and they have that “star struck” look in their eyes, because that is when I know I am really making an impact on someone. When I was little I used to do the same thing to other Olympians, and I know how much of my motivation came from them and wanting to be in their shoes. I just try to keep passing down the secrets of success because I know that in a few years, those little kids will be the next Olympians.
For more information about Samantha Peszek, follow her on twitter @realspeszek and instagram @speszek. Or check out her college team website—the UCLA Gymnastics Team.
Photos by Don Liebig, UCLA Photography
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