Thursday, April 18

From the floor to her future

UCLA student gymnast will compete nationally for the last time in Georgia this weekend

Every day for the last 20 years, Tasha Schwikert has woken up as a gymnast.

But when she starts her day next Monday, the identity she has been associated with for so long will no longer be hers, and she will have to begin forging a new identity, drawing upon the lessons she has learned from the sport of gymnastics in the next chapter of her life.

After the NCAA Championships this weekend, Schwikert’s enormously successful gymnastics career will be over.

Schwikert, a senior, has been to two Olympics, won a gold medal at the 2003 World Championships and was the 2005 NCAA all-around champion.

In short, she has accomplished almost everything possible in the sport of gymnastics, and will now seek a new path.

“Tasha is one of the most talented gymnasts to ever compete in collegiate gymnastics, and when she does something, it is more powerful, more beautiful, more graceful than most people out there doing gymnastics,” coach Valerie Kondos Field said.

“What has made her a great gymnast is that she’s disciplined, smart, talented, works hard, enjoys a challenge and loves to compete, and all those qualities will help her be hugely successful at the next thing she does.”

In a sport that involves athletes who often reach their peak even before they enter college, there is nothing further that Schwikert can pursue in gymnastics.

Knowing her gymnastics career would end after college, Schwikert has positioned herself to transition into the world of sports broadcasting. She has worked as a commentator for the last three World Championships, has been doing voice-overs for all of the UCLA gymnastics meets and will be working on production for the Olympics this summer with NBC.

“(Tasha) has done an amazing job ““ better than any other athlete I’ve ever had ““ in forging the next chapter of her life, and that’s in sports commentary,” Kondos Field said. “She has done what you are supposed to do in college, which is bridge the gap between being at home and being in the real world.”

Even though she has a solid plan for the future, giving up gymnastics will still be very difficult.

“I’m going to be extremely sad when my 20-year gymnastics career is over, and it’s definitely going to be bittersweet on the Monday after nationals,” Schwikert said. “I’m Tasha Schwikert, the Olympic gymnast. I’ve had such an illustrious and amazing career, but gymnastics has taught me so much and I am ready to close this chapter of my life and redefine Tasha Schwikert the person instead of only being known as a gymnast.”

Schwikert’s mother was a professional tennis player, and Schwikert originally started gymnastics when she was three years old as a way to build coordination until she was old enough to begin tennis lessons. But she quickly realized that gymnastics was her passion, and began competing at seven years old. She won every competition in which she participated during her first season in the sport, and gravitated to the individuality it provided her.

“In team sports, it bothered me when I did well, teammates would mess up, we would lose, and there was nothing I could do about it,” Schwikert said. “I wanted to make some contribution in every part of the game, and I liked that I would win or lose based on my own performance in gymnastics.”

As she progressed through years of training, there seemed to be no limit to her potential, and she was chosen for the U.S. National Team at age 14. When she qualified for the World Championship trials in 1999, she began to realize that making the Olympic team was a realistic possibility.

“At that point, I started taking gymnastics really, really seriously, and (my family) stopped going on vacations because I couldn’t take any time off from training,” Schwikert said.

Schwikert was chosen as an alternate for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, but after an injury to another athlete, she found out she would be competing only five days before the games began.

“I was so excited that I would be competing and I couldn’t believe it was really happening, but I was still very focused on what I had to do,” Schwikert said.

As a 15-year-old, Schwikert led the team off on three events, and helped the U.S. to a fourth place finish.

After the Olympics, success kept coming Schwikert’s way: She was the U.S. all-around national champion in 2001 and 2002, and she placed fifth in the world in the all-around at the 2001 World Championships.

In 2003, Schwikert achieved what she considers her greatest accomplishment.

Schwikert was the captain of the first U.S. team in history to win the gold medal at the World Championships.

But it was not only winning the gold that stands out in her mind, but the way the U.S. team did it. Three of the six U.S. gymnasts were injured and had to be replaced in the weeks leading up to the competition, and few expected the U.S. to dominate the competition with so many of the top gymnasts out of the lineup.

“We had to watch girls go down like flies, and being able to make it out with a victory and make history when no one thought we would even medal was an awesome experience,” Schwikert said.

An Achilles injury in 2004 kept Schwikert from competing at her best, but she was still chosen as an alternate for the 2004 Olympic team.

After the summer games, Schwikert came to UCLA and quickly began dominating collegiate competition.

She was the NCAA all-around champion as a freshman, and was the only gymnast in 2005 to earn first-team All-America honors in all four events and in the all-around.

“I felt like I was on a roll in freshman year and everything in life was going well,” Schwikert said.

However, sophomore year did not go as planned.

Schwikert tore her labrum in the offseason and had shoulder surgery that prevented her from competing until the last week of the season. Without her in the lineup most of the year, UCLA failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time in 15 years.

“The injury was horrible for her, but she had to persevere and push through to help her team try to get to the national championships,” Kondos Field said. “She was just able to come back too late, and did the best she could for her team, but it wasn’t enough.”

But the time spent watching from the sidelines did help Schwikert to mature and grow as a teammate.

“Tasha has a more compassionate heart now than she had four years ago, and has matured substantially in being empathetic,” Kondos Field said. “She still has a fierce competitiveness and will to win, but now she goes out of her way to show comfort to others.”

Her sister, also a UCLA gymnast, also acknowledged how much Schwikert has grown since she first came to Westwood.

“Tasha really reaches out to her teammates now, which she didn’t do that much freshman year,” senior Jordan Schwikert said.

Tasha Schwikert came back her junior year determined to pick up where she left off freshman year, and despite a nagging strained Achilles, she was the Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year, capturing the Pac-10 all-around, vault, beam and floor titles.

This season, Schwikert has continued her strong performances, winning the Pac-10 uneven bars title and averaging a 39.4 in the all-around. Her severely strained Achilles has remained a problem, keeping her out of several events at different points in the season.

“Injuries reveal character and show if you can utilize what you do have to make the best of it,” Schwikert said. “This year I am focused on giving what I can to the team and doing the best I can do, but also enjoying my senior year and my teammates.”

Competing last on floor and vault for the Bruins, Schwikert knows that it is often up to her to be perfect for the team to win, and she thrives on the pressure.

“The nature of gymnastics is that we have to be perfect or we will lose, but I have been practicing ultimate perfection since I started competing at age seven, and I love pressure,” Schwikert said. “The more pressure you give me, the better I do.”

As her career is ending, Schwikert is trying to savor the time she has left and reflect on what she’s learned.

“Coming to college helped me be able to understand what it is to be part of a team, and showed me that everything is not about me,” Schwikert said. “I want people to remember me as one of the girls who always had their back and their best interests in mind.”

Schwikert’s teammates already recognize her as a great role model in how she helps others.

“She helps teach us how to think in different environments because she has so many past experiences,” sophomore Anna Li said.

Schwikert, who has experienced gymnastic success rivaled by few in the world, said she knows leaving the sport she’s known for so long will be hard, but that she will never forget the lessons it’s taught her.

“I’m embracing it all because nationals will be my last meet ever,” Schwikert said.

“I’m going to miss gymnastics a lot, but I have structured my path and set myself up for some amazing opportunities in sports broadcasting.

“My entire identity was based on gymnastics when I came to college, but there is more to life than gymnastics. I want to show the world the other strengths I do have, closing this chapter as a gymnast and going wherever life takes me, using all the lessons gymnastics has taught me.”

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