Put on some lively music and glance at Vanessa Zamarripa. Chances are, she will start dancing.
Whether it be for a couple hours in the gym with freshman Mattie Larson or for a few minutes during meets, the redshirt junior knows how to let loose and dance.
“If you hang out in our gym and we put on a fun song, it does not matter where Vanessa and Mattie are, they will just start weird girl dancing,” coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “And feeling the music and getting into it “¦ they are just quirky and weird in a fun way.”
Staying light-hearted has not been so easy for Zamarripa in the past year. The 2010 NCAA vault champion tore her left Achilles tendon shortly before the 2011 season, forcing the then-junior to redshirt.
“I was so shocked. You know you think that certain things can’t happen to you,” said Zamarripa, affectionately known by her teammates as Zam. “I never expected something that big to happen to me. Some people think they are invincible but you know really good people get hurt too.”
Suddenly the gymnast who was used to tumbling, flipping through the air and dancing found herself unable to stand.
“I know it was hard and she has always been so light on her feet,” Larson said. “She is a tumbler and great at vault. I mean she flies in the air, and I know that it was hard for her not to be able to do that.”
Going through a whole year of rehabilitation was a struggle for Zamarripa, who had never been injured so seriously before.
Having entered elite competition for the first time that previous summer, she was coming off successful performances at the international level, including an eighth-place finish in the all-around at the 2010 Visa U.S. National Championships.
Zamarripa was looking forward to competing in the World Championships and helping the Bruins win a second consecutive national title.
All that had to be put on hold when she heard a pop while doing a tumbling exercise during training in early December 2010.
“It made me really appreciate what I could do before. Appreciate others that do not get to compete and don’t get the spotlight and see how they contribute even though they are not competing,” Zamarripa said.
But after a year on the sidelines, taping teammates’ ankles and cheerleading, Zam is done waiting.
She performed on vault and bars in UCLA’s season-opening meeting against Utah last Sunday and expects to be back on floor exercise and beam within the next few weeks.
“Honestly, I was nervous,” said Zamarripa with a quick laugh. “More nervous than I had ever been. It’s silly but I just wanted to do well my first time out.”
Underneath her fun-loving and “goofball” exterior, Zamarripa shows glimpses of the desire for perfection that has enabled her to be so successful in the gym.
“She does gymnastics on a whole level that you can’t teach,” Kondos Field said. “It’s god-given. She can do the same exact skills that any other athlete does, but she has this lightness and she makes it seem effortless. It’s ethereal, like she is flying.”
Watching her perform twisting vaults only to land softly on her feet or complete her beam routine as if she was walking on the floor, it is easy to underestimate the level of consistency that Zamarripa brings to the team.
“I mean, people tell me, “˜Oh it is all so perfect, you make it look so easy, you should never mess up.’ But that is not fair, I am human too, you know. But I would expect that I would always do my best,” Zamarripa said.
And Zamarripa’s best on vault is perfect.
In her career as a Bruin, she has performed four flawless vaults, earning scores of 10.000 three times in 2009 and once in 2010.
“I forgot about those,” Zamarripa said laughing off-handedly. “It is just so awesome. It is just amazing because we strive for perfection and it is just so hard to get it. It’s like, I will keep working hard because I know I can keep getting 10′s for my team.”
A perfect 10 is a crowning achievement for any gymnast but Zamarripa seems unaffected by the numerous awards she has earned. She is more concerned with making sure the team, herself included, does not start taking itself too seriously.
So she dances.
“It kind of keeps me balanced,” Zamarripa said. “If I stand there, I’m thinking about what I need to do. But if I dance a little it relaxes me. And it helps my teammates too, by kind of making sure they are having fun.”
“Each person (on the team) is a piece to a puzzle and I think my piece is the one that keeps everyone calm and keeps everyone from overthinking. You know, just have fun.”