The Story of a Ballroom Dance Legend

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Known by many to be the greatest ballroom dancer of this generation, Victor Fung is a giant in the world of competitive ballroom dancing, just as Michael Jordan is to basketball and Tiger Woods is to golf. He and his current dance partner, Anastasia Murayeva, have won multiple national and world titles throughout their ten-year partnership. In June of 2017, the two won the open professional ballroom title at the Blackpool Dance Festival, the most prestigious ballroom dance competition in the world.

Who is the man behind the legend? How did Victor come to achieve such success, not just in dancing, but in other areas of life? This is his story.

Growing Up

Victor was born and raised in Orange County, CA, to parents Anthony Fung and Jeannie Fung. Victor has three other siblings— Jennifer, Alex, and Tiffany— all of whom danced competitively as well.

As a young kid, Victor participated in a wide array of activities. Besides going to school, Victor was a competitive swimmer, training six days a week with dual practice sessions before and after school. He played both violin and piano, and was enrolled in Kumon, an after-school math and reading program geared at helping kids accelerate in their academics.

 At the age of 8, Victor was introduced to ballroom dancing by his parents, who enjoyed dancing socially. His mother enrolled him and his siblings into a kids’ class at a local studio, the Imperial Dance Academy. “I liked it right away. There were a few other kids there, and I had a great time. Within three weeks, I did my first competition, which was the USA Dance Nationals. I danced with my sister, and my brother danced with another girl. It was just us two couples, and we were competing against each other. After that first competition, I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done with dancing.’ Then my mom said, ‘No no no, we’re going back to class.’ The next month I did another competition, then the following month I did another, and I’ve never looked back since.”

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 Victor cites a couple reasons why he decided to ultimately pursue the International Standard style of ballroom dance, as opposed to its sister style, International Latin. “I started with Standard first because my early teachers were more inclined towards Standard. The first two dances I learned were Waltz and Quickstep. I later started to learn Cha Cha and Rumba, then Tango and Foxtrot. It was the influence of my teachers that led me to stay with the Standard side. I am also more inclined towards Standard. I like watching Latin, but when I watch myself do Latin I say, ‘No, that’s not for me.’ I felt more connected with ballroom. I liked the idea of dressing up and wearing a tail suit and bowtie. From day one I knew I was more of a Standard dancer.”

One of his greatest dance inspirations growing up was a dancer named Augusto Schiavo. “I loved the way he conducted himself and his personality on the dance floor. He was very masculine and commanding on the floor, so dominant, so powerful and so domineering. That sort of composure and energy he brought to the floor was incredible. I was always watching him on videos. He was my role model as a dancer. I never met him until I was an adult, and only had one lesson with him in my entire career.” 

Living a Double Life at University

At the age of 18, Victor started college at the University of California, Los Angeles. When asked whether he ever considered forgoing college for the sake of dancing, Victor replied, “No, I never had the idea of skipping out on college. I didn’t want to give up my degree.”

Victor graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in Biochemistry and a minor in Business Administration.  Originally, he intended to go down the medical school path, but decided to switch to dentistry, a track that would afford him a little bit more time for dancing while in school. “To become a dentist, you have to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). At one point, I was thinking about not taking the exam at all. Fortunately, my mother encouraged me to do it. She said, ‘Victor, you’ve come this far, and if you take the exam, you will have a choice between dental school and dancing.’ So I took the DATs, and I’m really glad that I did. I scored very very high on the exam, which showed me that if I put my mind to something, I can accomplish anything.”

In spite of his academic successes, Victor could hardly call his college experience an easy or traditional one. While his mind was rooted in school, his heart yearned for dancing. When asked whether he felt frustrated that school took away time from his dance training, Victor replied, “I felt that way every single day during my time at UCLA. Especially at that age when you’re young and you’re hooked on life and you want to go and experience exciting things, and then you’re stuck in the classroom. What makes it worse was that I was in biochemistry. I remember sitting in the Young Hall stadium seats, basically feeling like one peanut in a whole bucket of nuts. I felt so insignificant, and every single day I just wanted to leave college. Every quarter I would leave school for a week, either for the World Championships, UK Open, or Blackpool. I wasn’t able to do what all my other competitors were doing. The percentage of time I dedicated to dancing was far less than that of other dancers in Europe because of my commitment to my studies. That was the thing that frustrated me the most when I was in college. I knew that my competitors were practicing daily, non-stop. I knew it. I felt like I was at such a disadvantage. I was practicing twice a week for two hours, and having only one lesson, whereas they would be in England having many lessons, and practicing every day. They were there for weeks having lessons before Blackpool, whereas I would just show up and dance the competition. I knew I was at a disadvantage from my competitors, in that sense. At the end of the day it really didn’t matter, though, because it’s really what you do with the information you receive and what you do with your time that matters.”

Victor shares how he managed his double life of school and dance. “Monday through Friday, I’d wake up at 8am, go to class, have lunch, then go to the library, sit down and study, until the evening. On Friday night, I would be picked up by my parents and I would go to the Westmor Dance Studio and practice for two hours. On the weekends, I’d go home and study. On Sundays, I would study, then have a dance lesson, then go to Westmor at night and practice for two more hours, after which my parents would drive me back to UCLA. If I wasn’t practicing at Westmor, I would be at UCLA watching dance videos and practicing by myself at [the school gym]. Some of the students that didn’t understand what ballroom was all about would come in, and probably wondered, ‘What is this crazy guy doing?’”

Regarding his studies, Victor says, “I never went to the professor’s office hours. When I would be absent from class, I would merely open the book and figure the subject material out myself.”

That Victor was able to balance both school and dance and perform so well in both disciplines reflects his strength of character, which he describes as “steadfast and persistent, through and through.” He recalls one particular individual who inspired him to achieve what many deem impossible. “There was a doctor who used to be a professional ballroom dancer. He got his medical degree while he was competing at the top of the amateur field. I asked him how he did it, and he said, ‘You’d be amazed at what people can do when they put their minds to it. Most people underestimate what they can do. They put their goals pretty low and underachieve.’ I never forgot his words. I told myself, ‘If this guy can do it, why couldn’t I do it?’”

To dancers who are faced with the crossroads of pursuing dance or an academic education, Victor says, “I definitely think that it’s very important to have an academic degree. I actually think dance and education go hand in hand, because the thing about dancing or any type of art form or sport is that it requires discipline. When you are good at your studies, you are good at other things. When you are good at your sport or your art, you can also be good at other things. Dancing taught me a lot as far as discipline, hard work, and dedication. Those skills transferred over to my studies, and vice versa. If anybody is thinking about skipping out on degree to pursue a passion, definitely pursue your passion, but also get a degree. It’s just good for you, and it’ll provide you with a safety net if dancing doesn’t work out.”

Becoming the Blackpool Champion

Before college, Victor had never competed at the prestigious Blackpool Dance Festival. The annual competition dates back to the 1920s, and is held in the Empress Ballroom at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, England.

1996 was the first year Victor competed at Blackpool with his sister, in the Youth division. “I went there and made the final, and finished fourth! How I did it, I don’t know. I guess they noticed my dancing. All the work I had done, paid off. The other competitors who made the final had been there a couple years already. When I made the final that year, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m on to something.’”

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Little did young Victor know that, several years later, in 2017, he would win the professional Blackpool title with Anastasia. He recounts the mixture of emotions he felt the day of their victory. “When we won, there were elements of both happiness and relief. In a way, the pleasure of it came later, after we won. In the moment it was very stressful and honestly not a lot of fun. It was a moment where I felt like I had to prove myself to others. When we didn’t win the Waltz, I thought, ‘Oh dear.’ Then we won the Foxtrot and Tango, which was kind of cool. And then for the Quickstep, the couple standing in front of us looked like they knew they had won that dance. If they had won that dance, we would be in a Rule 11 situation. Even thinking about it right now I’m starting to get nervous. That was the most stressful situation in my entire dancing career and life.”

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Interestingly, Victor says, “I think in that moment, winning the Blackpool title, even though it was important, it came a little too late in my life. I think if I had won it a few years earlier in my life, it would have been more significant to me. For everybody, things have to come in their lives at the right time. So when we finally won Blackpool, we were of course very happy since we finally did it after so many years. It was a nice thing to check off the bucket list. However, if we had won it a few years earlier, when public opinion mattered more to us, it might have been a little bit sweeter. But it was still a great feeling.”

When asked whether it was his goal from a young age to become the next ballroom champion, Victor says, “Not really. I think it was always my goal to become the world amateur champion, but I never imagined myself becoming a professional champion. I was pursuing my dancing and had a number of partners. I eventually realized that reaching the world amateur champion title wasn’t really in my cards, so I decided to turn professional. I found the right partner for me at the time, and kept going. My goal was always to improve my dancing and improve my skills. It wasn’t always about having a title, for titles are ways to quantify progress, but they are not really the most accurate measures, because in our business they’re all based on other people’s opinions. When your definition of success is based on other people’s opinions, that’s not really the best way to live your life. It is better for you to be your own best critic and your own best judge. If you measure your success based on external factors, then your life, your mood, your temperament will change on a whim because your results might be good this time and bad the next. It’s just not a healthy way to live our lives.”

When asked whether there is a secret formula to creating a ballroom dance champion, Victor took a step back and examined closely the definition of a champion. “When I was younger, in my mind, champion was the individual that was number one. And the individual that had the most number ones next to his/her name was the greatest champion. This is how I think society defines a champion. As I got older, I realized that being a champion is not about how many times you’ve won. It’s your character that makes you a champion. It’s your character and your ethics, who you are as a person, how you lift yourself up in difficult times, and how humble you are in good times, that makes you a champion. A champion understands what it takes to succeed, sets goals and achieves those goals, understands the value of hard work and is willing to do the hard work. A champion understands what it means to lose and fail. It’s not about the failure, it’s about learning from the failure and growing in the process. A champion is respectful of their competitors, respectful of people that have shaped their past, and respectful of the up and coming generation. The term ‘champion’ is a multi-faceted, all-encompassing term. The person who wins first place can have really bad character and not have champion qualities. Sometimes I think there is more of a champion in the individual that has never won. He or she has a much greater understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to fail, to succeed and what it means to work hard.”

Victor continues, “We all understand numbers. People view number one as being better than number two, number two better than number three. I don’t think so. If we think that way then we’re really narrowing our minds. We all can be a champion in ourselves. I believe that a single mom who takes care of three kids while working a full-time job is a great champion. There’s a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to the family. That for me is a champion. Having results is one way we can quantify in our industry. But if you’re talking about the actual champion, for me it’s about one’s character.”

When asked what inspires him to keep dancing, after having won Blackpool, Victor replies, “Blackpool has 11 judges. Those 11 judges, on that day and moment believed that, ‘Victor and Anastasia, are deserving of the Blackpool title.’ Well, the next day I may not be number one. Just because you win one competition doesn’t mean it is the end. If it is, that’s kind of sad, because then you’re just working for a number. Dancing really is an art. No artist would say, ‘I want to do 100 paintings and then I will finish.’ As an artist, [your art] becomes who you are. To stop dancing just because you’ve won a competition means you’re not a ‘true’ dancer. True dancers that are true artists understand that there is no ending to development and the creation of art. One may stop competing and stop doing shows but that doesn’t mean you stop growing. It’s a never-ending pursuit. As a true artist, you never stop growing. We all need to grow; it doesn’t matter how old you are, we all need to continue growing, developing, and learning.”

Dance Politics

In an industry inextricably linked to politics, where making the right connections is in many ways more important than skill level in predicting a dancer’s placement in competition, it can be difficult for dancers to maintain character and integrity, dance on their own terms, and play by their own rules, without their competitive results suffering. In turn, many dancers lose focus and direct their attention away from the dancing itself, and more towards pleasing the right people. When asked for his thoughts on people-pleasing and politics in the world of competitive ballroom dance, Victor says, “Politics in dancing is a natural part of the business. The important thing for me is to make decisions that make me happy and decisions I feel I can live with.  For me, I feel that at the moment I’m in a very healthy place in my life where other people’s opinions do not reign supreme in my mind, but instead my own happiness and Anastasia’s happiness are most important.  And, that means we dance in the way that makes us happy and not make decisions based on what other people think and want.  It’s a very healthy and empowering feeling. Because at the end of the day, we all have just one life and one dancing life…it is short, and so it should be enjoyed to its upmost.”

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He continues, “Our innate nature is to associate ourselves in groups. When you’re in a group, there’s a certain feeling of safety, justification, and security. But I think that’s a false sense. The security has to be within yourself. If you can stand on your own two feet, make your own decisions, and be happy with yourself then that I think is true self-confidence and strength.  I would really wish everybody to have their own sense of security and the confidence in themselves and the ability to do their own thing, make their own decisions, dance where they want to dance, dance how they want to dance, and not worry about what other people think. I think then you will find true happiness.”

 Joys and Challenges of Dancing

When asked what he loved most about ballroom dancing, Victor said, “I just really love the feel when I’m dancing with Anastasia. Plain and simple. I love that I can do that every day. I love it when everything just works, when everything’s in harmony. I’m creative, she’s responsive, she’s creating, I’m responding. I love the feeling of dancing with her.”

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In terms of challenges, Victor says, “I’m not a big fan of traveling, but that’s just a part of it. Politically, there are challenges, of course. Politics is human relationships, and how you interact with people. If you’re good with that then politics can work for you. But if you choose to focus on the negative, it’ll get to you. If you choose to focus on the positive, then the negatives don’t seem to matter as much. I honestly don’t see that many challenges in being a dancer, especially if the goal is pure. Nobody can stop you from making yourself better. If you focus on that and make that the goal, you don’t really see the challenges. The big thing is the dancing. I’m lucky because I haven’t had any physical limitations or injuries in my career.” Laughing, he adds, “I don’t drink enough water. That’s one other challenge, I suppose. I sweat a lot and get dehydrated.”

Competition Rituals

When asked if he has any competition rituals that help him get in the right headspace before taking the floor, Victor replies, “I like to visualize my performance before I step onto the competition floor.  I like to try and get myself as relaxed as possible. If I’ve done the work before and feel happy with the work, I just go out to the competition and have fun.”

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He recalls wise words from a former teacher that have served him well throughout his dance career: “The competition should be your reward for all the hard work you’ve done leading up to the competition. It should not be the punishment. It shouldn’t be like, ‘I’m going to be tested.’ Competition should be party-time!”

Victor notes that it is completely normal for dancers to feel nervous before competition, for if you aren’t nervous, it probably means you don’t care enough. However, he adds, “If I’ve done the preparation and hard work before the competition, then I don’t feel nervous. For me, the nerves come from when I start worrying about what other people think. My focus then shifts to the external management of people’s reactions, which nobody should care about. Just focus on doing the best that you can, and that should be it.”

Victor also brings up an important distinction between two schools of thought on judging—and how this distinction can drastically alter the way a competitor performs on the dance floor. “I think judges look at judging in one of two ways: they either look for a mistake, or they look to be inspired. [The former] mode of judging is a very easy and ‘safe’ way to judge. I don’t think its a very healthy way to judge, especially when you tell this to a competitor. The dancer is then ingrained with the fear of making a mistake. Judges who look to be inspired are the ones that will reward a dancer for doing something great during the competition. Judges are also audience members. They should be looking to be inspired. Whoever inspires the most should be rewarded.”

He adds, “If I allow the negative approach of judging to get to my head, that doesn’t help me. I like to focus on the positive. I like to find people in the audience and say, ‘I am going to inspire you today. I’m going to spend all of my positive energy to inspire you, the audience.’ I want you to walk away feeling like, ‘Oh my god, I love ballroom dancing, and my faith in ballroom dancing is completely renewed because I watched Victor and Anastasia perform with such inspiration.’ It all starts from your mindset and your attitude when you go to the competition.”

 Ballroom Dance—Sport, or Art?

There is a long-standing debate in the world of Dancesport regarding the nature of ballroom dance—is it a sport rooted in technical execution, or is it an art characterized by creative expression? When asked for his thoughts on this topic, Victor says, “Dancing is, I believe, an art, with a sportive and athletic element to it. Like with any sport, you have to have good technique. However, I think you should perfect your technique to the 90-95% level. The rest of your technique should be helping to enhance your artistry. The ultimate goal is to create the art. Technique is just something your body and mind need to help create the art, but at end of the day, you still need to create the art. As dancers and artists, we should not become slaves to the technique. During practices, you should have a portion focused on technique, and an equal portion, if not more, focused on artistry. That way, when you go to competition, you have a better chance of feeling great. Is there perfection in dancing? I don’t think so, because dancing is an art. That terminology of ‘perfection’ doesn’t really apply to dance.”

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Victor and Anastasia are currently working hard in preparation for this year’s Blackpool, which is coming up at the end of this month. Whether or not they take home another title, remains to be seen. Whatever the result, Victor’s champion character shines brighter than any medallion or trophy in the world. He is hardworking, humble, intelligent, and refuses to live life on anyone’s terms but his own. He epitomizes not only what it means to be a champion dancer and artist, but also what it means to be a champion person.

 

 

 

 

 










UCLA Gymnast Seeks to De-Stigmatize Mental Health in the Student-Athlete Community

 
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I met UCLA gymnast Anna Glenn back in fall 2017. She and her identical twin sister, Grace, were both in my discussion section for Life Science 15, a prerequisite course for the psychology major.

One afternoon, I was walking behind the twins as we exited the classroom, when my eyes fell upon their matching blue backpacks, each proudly embroidered with the words “UCLA Gymnastics”. A former gymnast and forever-gymnastics-enthusiast myself, I let my inner fangirl get the best of me. Wildly, I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, you guys are on the UCLA Gymnastics team?!” The Glenn twins, slightly startled by my forwardness, turned around and laughed, replying in the affirmative.

 
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I later learned that Anna and Grace were the same year in school as me—class of 2020. Both came into UCLA as biology majors, then switched over to psychology. Later, Grace decided to pursue sociology instead, while Anna stuck with psychology.

In the quarters that followed, Anna and I shared several classes—psychological statistics, research methods, health psych, cognitive psych. As I got to know her better, I began to understand why psychology was such a great fit major for Anna.

Personable, funny, and confident, this student-athlete has a natural ease around people that makes you want to be friends with her—and not just because she’s a bad-ass UCLA gymnast. Beyond her charm and athletic prowess, Anna is a passionate individual who cares deeply about mental health, especially in the student-athlete community.

But before we get into Anna’s work as a mental health advocate, let’s backtrack and get to know her story.

 
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Nanchang, China, April 27, 1998-- Anna Furong Glenn and Grace Fugui Glenn were born. Soon thereafter, the identical twins were adopted by parents Cindi and Neil Glenn, who reside in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was there that the girls would spend the next 18 years of their lives.

As infants, Anna and Grace experienced developmental delays, particularly in gross motor skills. Their parents decided to enroll the girls in artistic gymnastics to help build their physical strength. So, at only 2 years old, the twins took their first baby steps into the world of gymnastics, unaware of how large a role the sport would play in their lives.

When asked whether she had Olympic aspirations from a young age, Anna replied, “Not really. To me, a sport is a hobby, and a hobby is something you do because you love it.”

 
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Balance in life was something that always mattered to Anna, largely because she knew the risks of devoting everything to gymnastics. “If you know you’re gonna make a living off of your sport, then it makes sense to put in everything [into the sport]. But gymnastics is really short-lived. Most gymnasts retire in their 20s. So to me, it’s not worth putting everything into gymnastics, because at the end of the day, you can’t use gymnastics as a living.”

While the sport makes up a great part of her identity, Anna does not define herself solely based on gymnastics. “I don’t really define myself as just a gymnast. Instead, I associate myself with different characteristics that I will never lose. For example, I tell myself, ‘I’m a resilient person that went through all these things and came out on top.’ It’s more about the journey, rather than the labels.”

 
 

Anna maintains that it was difficult to have this foresight when she was younger. “When you’re young, you don’t really see yourself doing anything but gymnastics. In elementary and middle school, I’d introduce myself to people as just a gymnast. Now, as a student-athlete, I realize that there is more to life than gymnastics.”

Indeed, being both a student and an athlete has been a defining feature of Anna’s life. Unlike many high-level competitive gymnasts, who switch to online school or home school to accommodate the demands of a rigorous training schedule, Anna and her sister remained in public school from K-12. With their skill level, the Glenn twins had the potential to go elite and represent their country internationally. In Level 10, Anna competed at the prestigious Nastia Liukin Cup twice, earning 2nd place all-around the second time. Her sister Grace shared similar successes. In spite of their achievements, the twins decided not to go elite. “Our bodies were already starting to hurt from repetitive training, and we really wanted to go to public school, as that was better for college. Most elite gymnasts are homeschooled, training 8 hours a day, and we didn’t want that.”

 
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The summer after 8th grade, Anna and Grace began touring colleges in preparation for recruitment season the following year. Being academics-oriented people, the twins looked for schools that were strong both academically and athletically. They narrowed their choices to three: UCLA, Stanford, and Georgia. When asked what made UCLA stand out over other potential colleges, Anna said, “The coaches and girls were very welcoming and engaging. I agreed with the philosophy of the coaches and clicked with the team. UCLA had good academics, good gymnastics, good people. It had everything.” So, in January of their freshman year of high school, the girls committed to UCLA on a full-ride athletic scholarship. Their future teammates would include Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian, Christine “Peng Peng” Lee, and Katelyn Ohashi— all giants in the gymnastics world.

 
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When asked whether it was difficult, having had to make as momentous a life decision as choosing a university, so early on in her academic career, Anna says, “It was definitely a big decision to make at a young age, and I was initially more hesitant than Grace was.”

Her transition to college was a rocky one, in large part because of a shoulder injury that sidelined her from competition all of freshman year. The injury happened during her senior year of high school, on a Labor Day practice. Anna had to get surgery in November 2015. Afterwards, she focused her energies on rehab, so she could recover in time for collegiate gymnastics. She arrived at UCLA mostly healed, only to tear her shoulder again during pre-season training.

“I was super devastated. I was in a terrible mental state… depressed. I gained weight. [Coming to UCLA] was a transitional phase. I moved to a whole other state, didn’t have many friends, and wasn’t super integrated with the team. I had surgery again in January 2017, and wasn’t able to travel to competitions. I lived with this feeling of being an outsider. I felt useless for a lot of that time. I wanted to do more and help the team, but physically I wasn’t able to. I didn’t feel like I had a place on the team, because I hadn’t proven myself yet.”

Looking back, Anna says she “didn’t cope as well as [she] would have liked to.” But she recognizes the silver lining in her struggles, saying, “The adversity made me resilient. It was the hardest year of my life. If I could get through that, I can get through anything.”

Things quickly looked up for Anna, after her hellish freshman year ended. The following year, with her shoulder healed, Anna was able to compete with her team, making the lineup for vault, bars, and beam. That year, UCLA won the NCAA Championships, becoming national champions for the 7th time under the guidance of decorated coach, Valorie Kondos Field. Anna helped contribute to the team’s success; she was the top scorer on vault each day at nationals, scoring a 9.85 in the semifinals and 9.8875 in the finals.

 
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When asked what she thought made that year special for the team, Anna replied, “The concept of that year was: do it for the team. We are a team established on love. Everyone is so closely knit, it’s incredible. Winning nationals was the goal, but we thought of it as a long-shot. It wasn’t something like, ‘We have to do this’. The main thing was to go through the year with no regrets, and make sure all of our investment and intention was for the team and for the school. At nationals, when we found out we won, there were a lot of emotions… lots of crying. It was a huge moment for the team to reach that end milestone. Everything we did up until then was completely worth it.”

Their victory was hard-fought and a testament to the power of an unbreakable team bond. “It wasn’t a perfect meet,” Anna said. “We started out slow on floor and vault. Chris gave us a speech before bars. We delivered the best bars set of the entire season. We then carried that momentum to beam. Every person on the team contributed. It was like pieces of a puzzle coming together. If there was a fluke, someone else made up for it. We are trained to stay in our “Bruin Bubble”, which means being present with the team. No distractions. The energy, atmosphere, and feeling of our team is fun! Because of that, the entire season is fun.”

 
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Indeed, the Bruins stand out amongst other collegiate teams of similar caliber, not because of their competitive success, but because they are able to achieve such success in a positive, fun, healthy environment. “A positive mindset carries you far,” says Anna. “You can’t beat yourself up or use negative energy. An optimistic mindset is one that needs to be spread more. I want to use my status to show the world that that is how it should be.”

 
 

She states that one of the differences between club gymnastics and collegiate gymnastics is the environment and coaching style. “There’s a healthier coaching style in collegiate. I personally had a great relationship with my coach back home, but I do know of a lot of abusive coaches in club gymnastics. [These coaches] don’t know how to handle young girls. They place lots of blame on the athlete, and there’s a lot of miscommunication. In club gymnastics, coaches are always hard on their athletes, in a ‘tough love’ kind of way. It’s a culture, and it’s hard to break that culture, because coaches find it hard to see any other way of coaching. It doesn’t need to be that way.” When asked how she thinks we can change the abusive culture of club gymnastics, Anna says, “I think it’s important for college gymnasts to go back into coaching, or at least share their collegiate experiences with club gymnasts and coaches. It really sucks that [club gymnastics] is the way it is, and I disagree with the way that things have been handled. People should speak out. Girls are trained to not say anything. They are programmed to be obedient, like a dog. They don’t want to defy authority. It’s hard to break this vicious cycle because no one wants to speak up.”

Anna adds that in collegiate gymnastics, athletes have a lot more outside support and resources to utilize, from nutritionists, to trainers, to sports psychologists. “We have coaches who are there for you. We have a team-oriented mindset. We’re representing something way bigger than the individual, so they really want to invest in you.”

Beyond environment and coaching methods, club gymnastics differs from collegiate gymnastics on a fundamental level. “Club [gymnastics] is all about numbers, with gymnasts putting in so many hours a week for training. It’s about finding your style, and basically learning how to do gymnastics. Collegiate is a lot more mental. Your body is starting to deteriorate, and you only have so much time for training, since you’re also a student. You train your mind to compete in such a way that you don’t need as many numbers or hours. It’s cool to see how strong the mind is. We use cues, which are things you say to yourself before a skill. This method promotes consistency. We can be consistent without putting in the same numbers as we did in club. In collegiate, you learn how to deal with distractions, since there are a lot more distractions in college-- relationships, money, academics, social life, clubs, social media. You learn how to block out the negative and use the positive as fuel.”

Finding the perfect balance between life as a student and life as an athlete has been one of Anna’s biggest challenges at UCLA. “I wake up every morning between 6:00-6:15am. I pack my stuff for class and practice, then head to the training room, where I eat breakfast. Before practice, I receive treatment. Practice starts at 7:45am and goes until 11:30am. We can only have classes in the afternoon, which is why student-athletes get priority enrollment to get the classes they need for their major.”

Being a student-athlete at UCLA has shaped Anna into a master of time management. “In college, you are more than just an athlete. You are juggling two very important things-- school and sports-- and you’re putting equal time and energy into both.”

What is her secret to managing? “I have to be able to do work in between classes. I can’t stay up until 3:00am doing homework because I have training in the morning. I go to bed each night at a reasonable time, from 11:00pm to 11:30pm. I have to be very organized and write out my schedule for each day. You learn to work in little time slots and not waste time.”

Between training, classes, competitions, and exams, it is difficult to imagine how Anna could have time to herself. “It’s hard to find downtime. Sometimes I give myself an hour to watch Netflix, but [downtime] is very limited. One thing Miss Val taught us is to schedule our downtime. She calls it ‘sabbath rest’. The rest that you get is used to fuel your energy for the next day.”

In many ways, gymnastics has made a positive impact on Anna’s academic life. “Gymnastics helps me academically, because [the sport] taught me to want to be the best in every aspect of my life. It taught me passion. If you have the passion, you’re gonna put 110%. When you’re in a sport for so long, you know what it means to be passionate.”

 
 

When asked what she loved most about gymnastics, Anna says, “I love the community. It’s a lot of fun to see former teammates at [collegiate] competitions. You compete with the same people and have friends from all across the country. I love the relationships you form within such a close knit community. I always want the best for everyone. Gymnastics is such a dangerous sport, you want people to be okay. Everyone is in the same boat.”

 
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As much as she loves her sport and its community, Anna admits that sometimes, she wishes for more time to pursue interests outside of gymnastics. “Gymnastics takes up so much of your time, and it’s hard to find a life outside of it. It’s just school and gym, all your life. These days, I’m finding more interests outside of gymnastics, like photography and mental health. But it’s hard to find time to branch out and explore these interests.”

This past year, however, Anna has been able to integrate her life as an athlete with her passion for mental health advocacy. She is involved with an organization called Student Athlete Mentors (SAMs), which addresses mental health in the student-athlete community. “Many student athletes face mental health issues, and even commit suicide,” says Anna. “The issue is more relevant now than ever. A big part of it is a pressure problem. Athletes face so much external pressure from coaches, teammates, parents, social media, and many don’t know how to channel the pressure. They internalize the pressure negatively, and get overwhelmed. People cope in different ways. Sports psychologists and CAPS [Counseling and Psychiatric Services] work with student athletes, but not many people like to admit to getting help. Athletes want to look like they have full control. They are programmed to not show signs of weakness, and having mental problems and not being okay is seen as a sign of weakness that people don’t want to show.”

In December 2018, former UCLA rower Natalie Puente took her own life. This tragedy sparked a widespread discussion of mental health in the student-athlete community.

In February 2019, UCLA hosted an art gallery called “Shattering the Silence”, in honor of Natalie’s passing. The gallery featured artwork dedicated to and inspired by mental health struggles people face every day.

 
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On March 14, 2019, UCLA Athletics released a PSA video centering on the topic of mental health in sports. The video, spearheaded by Anna, features UCLA athletes across all sports disciplines. Boasting over 16,000 views on Facebook alone, the video is intended to kickstart the student-athlete mental health campaign at UCLA, entitled #BruinBrave.

 
 

One of the campaign’s mission statements is to reframe the way people think about mental health. “You have to treat your mind the way you treat your body,” Anna says. “Mental health is just as if not more important than physical health, which is why I want to push for a mental campaign at UCLA. I want to build a more resilient student-athlete community so we can perform at our peak.” She is inspired by Towson University gymnast Olivia Lubarsky, who started a mental health campaign at her university called “Own Your Roar”.

In addition to SAMs, Anna is involved with another on-campus mental health organization called Bruin Mental Health Advisory Committee (BMHAC), which focuses on improving the mental health resources available for all Bruins. The organization is currently working to design an app to help students cope with daily stressors and promote healthy living.

At this very moment, Anna is focused on competing with her team, which is scheduled to compete this weekend at Anna Arbor, MI, for the NCAA Regionals. This season is a special one, as it is head coach Valorie Kondos Field’s 29th and final season with UCLA Gymnastics, before she retires. The Bruins have performed brilliantly thus far, most recently winning the Pac-12 Championships in March.

 
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If there is one thing Anna learned from being on the UCLA Gymnastics team, it is how to incorporate fun as a key ingredient of success. Her biggest advice to young athletes out there is: “Enjoy the process and have fun with it. The worst thing you can do is be in a robot state of mind. It’s important to find ways to have fun at practice. Use your teammates to back you up. Make a game out of practice and use fun as incentive. You’d be surprised as to how much you can get done when you make work fun. You become more efficient, and you don’t risk burning out.”

The idea of having fun as a competitive athlete can seem completely counterintuitive to many, especially those trained with a “no pain no gain” mindset. Anna notes that many gymnasts face an exorbitant amount of pressure to be perfect, in part because of the dangerous nature of the sport. “Gymnastics is one of the most mental sports that requires a high level of concentration. It’s so precise, and your life's on the line. What it takes to be number one in gymnastics is perfection.”

Anna notes that too much of this pressure and perfectionism can be counterproductive and detrimental to an athlete’s mental health. “Having a perfectionist lifestyle can be hard internally because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, and you also face added external pressure. You beat yourself up when you fail, and don’t know how to handle not being the best. With time and practice, though, you learn and are able to switch to a healthier mindset.”

 
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Clearly, Anna has grown tremendously during her almost-three years at UCLA. Looking back, she says that coming to UCLA was “the best decision she made in her entire life.”

While she is not completely sure of what she wishes to do after graduation, she knows it will be related to the field of psychology. “I’m super passionate about the psych major. I want to do something in that field. I need a break from gymnastics. I love it, but I also want to be exposed to something that’s different. I’m embracing the uncertainty and am receptive to everything that comes my way. It’s an exciting time!”











































Rebecca Sereda: More Than Just a Gymnast

 
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Rebecca Sereda is a household name in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, a sport that combines elements of gymnastics, dance, contortion, and manipulation of hand apparatus. She is the 4-time Junior Olympic champion, 6-time US National Champion, and finalist at the 2013 World Championships. Everyone expected her to represent the US at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Tragically, it was an injury that cut her gymnastics career short, before her Olympic dream could be realized. Here is her story.

Rhythmic gymnastics is a vastly popular sport in Eastern Europe, especially in the former Soviet Union. Her mother, originally from Ukraine, was reading a Russian newspaper one day, when she saw a rhythmic gymnastics advertisement and decided to enroll young Rebecca in classes. At 6 years old, Rebecca knew the minute she stepped foot inside Isadora Gymnastics, her home gymnastics club of 13 years, that she had found her true passion. At the time, Rebecca and her family were living in Staten Island, New York. Isadora Gymnastics, located in Brooklyn, was a 45-minute drive away. Regardless, Rebecca’s parents made the commute because they saw how much their daughter loved the sport. At the time she began rhythmic gymnastics, Rebecca was also enrolled in dance classes. 9-months into her sport, she had a dance recital the same day as a gymnastics competition. It was then that Rebecca was forced to choose: dance or gymnastics. She chose the latter. “And thank God I did,” Rebecca says.

Before Rebecca turned 8, tragedy struck. Her mother passed away of cancer. Rebecca’s father was then living in Ukraine. And so, for a while, Rebecca lived with her mother’s best friend. “I used gymnastics as an outlet to get over my mom’s death.” She began to practice more and devote everything she had into her sport. “Gymnastics was my happy place and getaway.”

When Rebecca first started at Isadora, the gymnastics club was run in such a way that there were two separate gyms: one for the beginners, and one for the level 7-10 gymnasts. When Rebecca was in level 6, her head coach, Natalya Kiriyenko, came into the beginners’ gym to watch. Kiriyenko later told Rebecca, “I remember I fell in love with you that day.” Shortly after her mother’s death, Rebecca was taken under the wing of Kiriyenko, who would remain Rebecca’s coach until the end of her career.

When asked whether or not the Olympics was her dream from a young age, Rebecca replies, “[The Olympics] is the goal of every little kid. But it wasn’t until I began to win Junior Olympics and compete internationally that I saw the Olympics as being feasible. I started to really believe in the goal when I was in level 9. By then, I understood the format and qualification process.” While the Olympics was her long-term goal, Rebecca had a lot of small goals along the way, to keep her motivated and on track. “It’s hard to be proud of yourself if you only have one goal to work towards.”

It was important for Rebecca to celebrate these little victories on her long, hard road to the Games. Unlike many gymnasts at her level, who are homeschooled or do online school to have more time for training, Rebecca attended public school her entire life. “I had a lot of absences [from school], but I never decided I needed to be homeschooled. I was good at staying on top of my work. I prioritized gymnastics over school, but I knew I had to do well enough in school because rhythmic gymnastics wasn’t going to be my life forever.” Rebecca did very well in school, taking AP classes and graduating with honors. “I had a big workload in school, so I had to learn to manage my time efficiently. There was a small window between school and gymnastics practice, so I did my homework efficiently [in that gap]. I didn’t touch my phone. Through this, I gained time management skills and a good work ethic.” Mondays were Rebecca’s only day off from the gym. “On Mondays, my teachers gave me homework for the rest of the week, so I tried to get as much done as I could [on Monday] to have a relatively free week.” Between studying and training and competing, Rebecca was left little time for a social life. “I didn’t have a normal social life. A lot of athletes quit because they want a social life. But I don’t regret it; I was never drawn to a social life [at school]. My closest friends are from my sport. Since practice on Fridays ran until 10pm, and Saturday and Sunday mornings were also taken up by training, I wasn’t able to make weekend plans [with school friends]. I wasn’t really close to people in high school, but it didn’t really matter. I came out of it on top because I became independent, and was prepared to take on the challenges of a college student.”

On the rare occasions when she had free time, Rebecca enjoyed going shopping in the city with her gymnastics friends. “My gym friends lived in Brooklyn and Queens. I would go to the city to hang out with them. At age 13, we thought we were so cool, going shopping and enjoying our time away from the gym. I truly value my friends a lot.” Rebecca also enjoyed massages and naps. “Mondays I would take naps and go to bed early. I never pulled an all-nighter in my life. I never studied past midnight; my brain just shuts off, then. When I lived in Novogorsk, Russia [for training], I did a lot of reading. I’ve always been a big reader, sometimes reading one book a day, because it relaxes me. I like mystery, realistic fiction, and fantasy. It’s good to have something not associated with either gym or school.”

When asked whether she wished she had more normalcy growing up, Rebecca said, “I didn’t want the normalcy. In the beginning, I was a little upset when I saw friends going to house parties. But I realized that that wasn’t very important. I started competing for USA when I was very young, so it was the only life I really knew. Making the extra hour-long commute to the gym and back was difficult, but that was my normal lifestyle. It was different from those of my peers, but it was my normal.”

So instead of spending her nights partying and drinking with school friends, Rebecca was either training, traveling the world for competitions, or hanging out with her teammates, many of whom remain her closest friends to date. “I loved the special bond you create with people in the sport. Rhythmic is an interesting sport—it is competed individually. To this day, though, I consider my rhythmic gymnastics friends my closest friends in my life. I have over 15 years of friendship with some people! So even though we were direct competitors, we were still such good friends.”

Romantic relationships for the student-athlete prodigy was out of the question. “I told myself that I didn’t want any distractions. In high school I was super involved in gymnastics. I saw how friends had relationships, and how upset that would get over break-ups. I would never want to break up before a big competition. It was only when I stopped gymnastics that I started dating and being a normal person.”

During the last years of her junior career and into her senior career, Rebecca’s typical training schedule was as follows: Go to school at 7:10am and get out at 1:45pm, with no lunch period. Go home, then head to the gym for a minimum of 5-hour practices every day of the week except Monday. Saturday was double practice: 4 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the afternoon. During the last two years of her career, Rebecca did a lot of physical therapy, doing 3 hour sessions with her physical therapist and athletic trainer. “By the time my schedule got that hectic, I was driving myself, so my dad didn’t have to.”

 
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All of Rebecca’s hard work paid off. She quickly moved up the levels, becoming Junior Olympic champion in level 7, both years of level 8, and level 9. She was actually forced to do level 8 twice, because people said she was too young to compete level 9 at that time. National Qualifiers is the competition that determines which level 9 gymnasts can move on to level 10. It is also the competition that determines which athletes make the national team. In 2008, at the age of 12, Rebecca not only made level 10 at Qualifiers; she placed 3rd all around, earning her spot on the USA rhythmic gymnastics national team, and secured her spot for the next 7 years. Her first international competition was at age 10, in Budapest, Hungary. “International competitions can be nerve-wracking. You’re going from competing in college gyms to large-scale arenas, filled with lots of people.” Rebecca also faced the pressure of representing her home country at these international competitions. At age 12, with the weight of the nation resting on her tiny frame, Rebecca learned how to cope with pressure from early on. “I didn’t think too much about it,” she says. Her mantra was, “If I do my job, I should be fine.” With experience, she developed a mental toughness that helped her push through competition nerves. “If I knew I was in good physical shape and was ready, then I was confident.” It was this mental strength that led Rebecca to become the 4-time Junior Olympic Champion, US National Champion from 2009-2014, junior Pan American champion in 2009, and a finalist in many major international competitions. 2012 was her first year as a senior competitor. It was an Olympic year. At that time, fellow US rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin was a veteran senior competitor. According to the rules, gymnasts could go to the Olympics in one of two ways: they could qualify for an Olympic spot at Qualifications, which is held the year before the Games; or, if no one from a given continent makes the top 24 to qualify to the Olympics, the Federation is still allowed to send one “wildcard” athlete from their continent who had competed at Qualifiers. In 2011, the year Qualifiers were held, Rebecca was still too young to compete for a spot at the Olympics. Therefore, she was unable to earn a spot in London, with Julie representing the US, instead. The biggest success of her career happened the following season, when she became a finalist at the 2013 World Championships in Kiev, Ukraine, alongside fellow US gymnast Jasmine Kerber. It was the first time in history that two US rhythmic gymnasts qualified for finals at a world championship.

Another highlight of Rebecca’s competitive career was the 2011 World Cup in Pesaro, Italy. Two years earlier, as a junior competitor, Rebecca finished in 4th place all-around at Pesaro, one-tenth of a point away from the bronze. “I told myself that the next time I came back, I wanted the medal. When I went next time, I made all the event finals, earning the silver medal in ball. It was a crazy moment because [during awards], I was standing in between two Russians. Caroline Hunt, [senior director of the USA rhythmic gymnastics program], awarded me my medal. It was an amazing achievement to understand that the US could in fact be at the level of other countries.” Rhythmic gymnastics is a relatively new sport in the US, with gymnasts from Eastern Europe-- particularly the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians-- dominating the sport. But because of athletes like Rebecca, who have achieved so much on the international circuit, the sport has grown tremendously in the US.

The ball apparatus was Rebecca’s signature event. “Ball is my favorite. It’s funny, because my hands are naturally sweaty. When I’m on deck, I use baby wipes like crazy. I used my towel, and my coach would let me wipe my hands on her leg! Ball became my favorite because I won so many awards [with this apparatus].”

Different athletes have different ways of getting into the right headspace before competition. Some athletes don’t like to talk to anyone during warmup. Rebecca was the opposite. For her, socializing was her way of getting relaxed and ready to perform. “Before I got on the carpet, I would tell my coach a story or crack some jokes. Before Worlds, I brought up a story unrelated to gymnastics. If I was laughing, I knew it was a good sign.”

When asked what happens if she makes a mistake or drops her hand apparatus in the middle of her routine, Rebecca replies that she is able to maintain her composure, largely because of her disciplined training methods. “In practice, I always finish my routine, even if I make a mistake [mid-routine]. My coach would not stop the music. So if the same thing happened in competition, I could recover quickly. I block out [the mistake] and allow my body to do more of the work than my head. If you think too much, it can be bad.”

In a sport where even the slightest misplacement of the body can mean the difference between catching your apparatus and having it slip from your hands, the pressure to perform to perfection is sky-high for these young gymnasts who, behind the makeup and rhinestone-covered leotards, are warriors to the core. Rebecca faced a great deal of pressure, especially as the 6-time US national champion. “My coach always used to say, the hardest place to be is first place. In first place, there is no where else to go. When you’re national champion, you don’t want to lose [the title].” For Rebecca, the pressure was not so much to stay in first place, as it was to continue improving and make her routines more exciting and captivating. Rhythmic gymnastics is not just a sport; it is a performance art, where athletes perform their one minute and thirty seconds routine to music of their choice. Gymnasts are judged not only on their execution of the elements, but also on their artistry and expression. Thus, it was important for Rebecca to not only deliver routines with flawless technique, but also to create pieces that would resonate with the crowd and judges.

When asked whether she ever saw sports psychologists during her competitive years to help cope with the tremendous pressure, Rebecca replies that she did not. “When I started gymnastics, the Federation didn’t have sports psychologists. I never really had issues competing. The past two years, Team USA has taken on two amazing sports psychologists who travel to elite squad and national team camps. They do training sessions and talk to parents and athletes. The recent 4 years have really pushed for psychologists, and I’ve seen a lot of athletes for whom it’s benefited. Especially with social media nowadays, it’s hard for athletes to stay focused. In my personal experience, I never really had to speak to a sports psychologist, because I never really grew up with one.”

Psychologically, rhythmic gymnasts face many challenges. One such challenge is that of body image, which, in aesthetic sports like rhythmic gymnastics, is a really big deal. When asked about her thoughts on this topic, Rebecca replies, “The fact is, body image is going to be a part of the sport for a very long time. If you compare gymnasts now to gymnasts from the 70s, we are a lot more muscular than gymnasts back then. Still, there is pressure to look a certain way, in this sport. I’m grateful because in my household, my family was very healthy. We had homecooked meals and freshly bought food. I was raised on a good diet and healthy lifestyle, even before I became super serious in the sport. Once you get older and puberty hits, that’s the point when most athletes gain weight. Up until age 16, I never had a single word said to me, [regarding my weight]. Every gymnast gains weight differently; I was on the better end of the stick and gained weight only towards the end of my career. If my friends wanted to go out to eat late night food, I knew I couldn’t do it. I asked myself, ‘Am I going to enjoy this food, or not be accepted at national team camp?’ There were days when I wasn’t allowed to eat dinner. My diet consisted of veggies, boiled chicken, and fish. I had a lot of salad and protein. I always ate enough to get through practice. I did have a scale in my room and weighed myself every morning, but I was never anorexic. Maintaining your weight is just a part of being a high level gymnast.”  

Another challenge within the sport is that of coaching abuse. Many rhythmic gymnastics coaches in the US come from Eastern Europe, where yelling and punishment are the predominant methods of training athletes. Past a certain line, such behavior constitutes abuse. When asked for her thoughts on coaching abuse, Rebecca says, “I don’t think it’s okay or necessary. The coach has to understand that they are molding these young girls. So much of my discipline and character came from how I was trained in the gym. There is a fine line between being rational and being abusive. Practicality is key. You have to be critiqued by your coach, because it’s their job to make you better. How they choose to critique you is important, though. Physical abuse is absolutely unnecessary. If my coach is throwing my club at me, I won’t get better. There is nothing worse than poor communication between athlete and coach, and abuse destroys that [communication].” She adds that abuse in the US is not nearly as bad as it is in Russia. “In the US, [gymnasts] go home to their parents, and tell their parents about what goes on in the gym. If parents don’t agree, they will argue with the coach. In Russia, athletes live in dorms, [without parents]. So there’s more regulation in the US, and coaches are less abusive.”

When asked about the difference between a strict and abusive coach, Rebecca replies, “A strict coach makes her decisions logically. Anyone who is abusive isn’t thinking practically, and is coaching on their emotions. If we were to train based on emotions, it would be a disaster! [Coaches] need to have a concrete explanation for their decisions. If the coach explains her reasoning, and if she yells at you for that reason, then it’s okay. There were days when I didn’t want to do a million ribbon routines, but I still had to, because the plan was for me to do a clean routine, and I had not done one yet. Yeah, it sucks, but [the coach] is right. And it’s important for coaches to notice the good and not always the bad.”

How a coach treats their gymnast also depends on the gymnast herself. “It’s important for coaches to address different styles,” says Rebecca. “What might work for one girl might not work for another; some gymnasts need to get angry before [competing]. That never worked for me. If I get yelled at, it messed me up.” Rebecca adds, “Coaches get frustrated because they spend a lot of time with us, oftentimes more time than they spend with their own families. They want to see results, and athletes want the same thing. Those minute and thirty seconds on the carpet reflect thousands of hours of training.” Thankfully, the culture of coaching in the US is changing. “A lot of coaches aren’t that way anymore,” says Rebecca, with regards to coaching abuse. “We now have sports psychologists educating coaches that [irrational punishment] is not the right approach.”

As for her own relationship with her coach, Rebecca says, “My coach and I have a great  relationship. She calls me ‘Becusya’, which is the Russian word for ‘gem’. We still talk to this day-- actually, we talked a few hours before this interview! She never yelled at me about mistakes, because mistakes happen; she would instead critique the recovery, and whether or not you gave up.”  

 
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Many athletes are their own worst critic. Moreover, many are trained with a “no pain no gain” mentality. When asked whether she agreed with this kind of mindset, Rebecca says, “I don’t like ‘no pain or no gain’. When you are devoting so much to your sport, there’s inherently going to be a lot of physical and mental pain. But it’s important to train smartly and understand your body and its limits, while being efficient. I don’t think it’s necessary to have to endure so much pain to emerge on top. The ultimate goal is to have a set plan for your routine and practice. Not with an ‘I didn’t sweat enough’ or ‘my body isn’t sore enough today’ mindset. Set logical goals and work smartly and efficiently. And understand when your body needs to rest.”

Towards the end of her highly decorated career, Rebecca faced a debilitating back injury that really tested her ability to be efficient with her training, without damaging her body too much. “My practices were a lot shorter. We had a plan that worked well, and as a result I got out of the gym faster because I didn’t need the extra time.”

Rebecca’s back injury began in 2012, when she began to experience pain during practice. It started out as a single herniated disk in her L4/L5 vertebrae. The condition was genetic, but had to be triggered by external events to manifest. In Rebecca’s case, the trigger was gymnastics. “At first, I thought it was a little soreness. I was still practicing full out thinking it was nothing. Eventually, I started feeling pain down to my right leg. There were times when I had to do my routines without feeling in my leg. My L4 and L5 started deteriorating, and my body had to compensate, because of that. It hurt to jump and arch [my back], which was basically everything. So I started adjusting my routines as much as I could, but even then there were practices when I would come in, my back would ‘lock’, and I couldn’t move.” Rebecca continued competing through her injury, but it certainly was not easy. “The annual Rhythmic Challenge in Colorado determines which competitions you go to internationally. In 2013, when the competition came, my joints locked in the middle of my clubs routine. It was a terrible routine. When I headed backstage after competing, I just collapsed to the floor and couldn’t move. People had to carry me out of the venue, and I had to scratch from the competition. That’s when we realized how intense the injury was.” The Rhythmic Challenge was in February. Rebecca was forced to sit out all international competitions between February and May of 2013. She still went to practice, even when she couldn’t move. “I would continue to practice, even if it was just doing spirals with my ribbon. I did physical therapy and acupuncture, and refrained from doing my routines full out in the gym.”  2013 was the first year Rebecca was eligible to compete at the world championships. After sitting out most of the season, Rebecca competed at a local competition, Spring Fling in Ohio, where she marked all her jumps. She did one international competition, a World Cup in France. Then it was US Nationals, of which the 1st and 2nd place gymnasts would earn a spot to the World Championships. Rebecca managed to defend her national champion title, securing her spot to Worlds. At Worlds, despite being injured, Rebecca pulled through and made the event finals for USA. “[Making the finals] helped me stay motivated.”

After Worlds, the injury worsened, and eventually took a toll on her body. “There were days when I would just collapse at home. Sometimes I couldn’t drive home from practice. The last year [of my career] was tough. I still don’t know how I did all those competitions the way I did. Sometimes it was during competition that I did my first full-out routine. In the past, I would come to competitions knowing I was prepared. Now, I competed only based on mental capacity. I’d compete with no feeling in my leg. I’d smile to the judges and no one would know. It was a roller coaster. I wanted to practice and be in the gym, and I would get so upset because other gymnasts would practice, and I couldn’t. My dad would see me coming home barely moving, and ask me, ‘Why do you need this?’ Rhythmic gymnastics was my true passion. When you’re so passionate about something, any pain you have doesn’t sum up to the love. I was so obsessed with the sport, and came so far already, I couldn’t imagine not continuing.” While her passion burned bright, that alone was not enough to prevent the injury from worsening and affecting her performance. “People noticed that my performances were starting to decline. I kept removing elements that hurt. But at my level, I can’t not be doing the highest point elements.” Rebecca traveled all across the nation to seek medical treatment. “I had the most amazing medical team. I became so close to my physical therapist that I was invited to her wedding! Everyone was trying to figure out something that would work.”  Rebecca and her medical team persisted in trying to find a solution, but to no avail. “At one point I was at home, and I was coming downstairs, carrying a bowl. I lost feeling in my leg, and my leg gave out. I fell and threw the bowl in the air, and it shattered on the ground. I was just laying there. My dad said, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’” Even Rebecca’s coach agreed. “[One day at practice] she said, ‘Let’s go on a walk.’ I had come to practice with my gym stuff like a crazy person. But my coach said, ‘Listen. I think you should do one more MRI, but for now I don’t think you should practice.’ We were both in tears. It was the first time in years that it was said out loud that I couldn’t practice. It was the hardest thing to hear.” Rebecca stopped training in December of 2014. “It was really hard because I graduated high school in June of 2014. I was really excited to not have school and only do gymnastics. In high school, I didn’t apply to colleges, as I was aiming for the Olympics. Now, here I was, not practicing and not in school anymore. I asked myself, ‘What do I do now?’ I went from having the busiest schedule to doing nothing.”

When Rebecca went for another MRI, the doctors found more issues with her spine. In addition, problems were found in her neck and hips, as they had been compensating for her back. Treatment after futile treatment ensued, until finally, Rebecca’s doctors staged an intervention. “We were standing inside the doctor’s office, when the doctor said that there was nothing else they could do for me. This was the end. There were tears in the doctor’s eyes.” The news was devastating.

On April 30, 2015, Rebecca officially announced her official retirement from the sport. In a heartfelt Instagram post, she wrote: “This is probably one of the hardest things I will ever have to write. I have officially sent a letter to USA Gymnastics announcing my retirement from rhythmic gymnastics. I don’t even have the words to describe my 13 year roller coaster with the sport I call my life. Unfortunately this decision was not in my hands. I have been dealing with a serious back injury for over two years already and if I were to continue doing gymnastics my spine and future would have severe consequences. I want everyone to know that I traveled the country, visiting the best doctors and doing countless amounts of procedures to find a solution. Despite months and hours spent at doctors, there is nothing they are able to do to alleviate my pain. Unfortunately I must leave this sport without achieving my ultimate goal of competing at the Olympics and this breaks my heart to pieces. However, when I look back at my career I know I have accomplished so much more than I ever thought imaginable. From being four time Junior Olympic champion, to six time national champion, to winning Pan American Championships and to competing at an infinite amount of world cups, I know my rhythmic career has been successful. I am very lucky to say that I have been a World Championship finalist which is the second highest rank competition after the Olympics. I, however, cannot fathom how much this breaks my heart because I loved practicing, I loved competing and I loved everyone I met and had a chance to work with. This retirement is just my goodbye from seeing my presence on the competition floor. However, it is not my goodbye from this sport because I could never let this beautiful sport go. I would personally like to thank the USA Gymnastics Federation for allowing me to represent the nation at the highest international competitions. I would love to thank my coaches and my team, Isadora. Without them, I would not be the person I am today. I would like to thank all the coaches I have worked with and all the competitors I have met because without you I would not have strived to succeed. Letting go of this sport and no longer being able to call myself an athlete makes me very upset but I know if I were to continue my health would decline. Therefore I have to make the sacrifice of retiring from my sport and stepping down from my position as national champion. Words cannot describe the love I have for this sport and words cannot describe the sadness filled inside of me as I write this. This decision is one of the hardest choices in my life and I want everyone to know that. Thank you to everyone who believed in me and I’m sorry for letting you down and not being able to further my gymnastics career.”

 
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Rebecca received numerous messages of condolences and support from fans and members of the rhythmic gymnastics’ community worldwide.

“When I found out [I had to retire], I was a mess for a very, very long time. [Between December 2014 and April 2015], there was a four-and-a-half-month period where nobody knew what had happened to me. I wasn’t competing anymore. I wasn’t showing face. But it didn’t really feel real until I announced it. Once I announced [my retirement], it really hit hard. I thought I had accepted [the injury], but I really didn’t. As happy as I was for the girls who qualified for the Olympics, it was still hard to watch.”  

After announcing her retirement, Rebecca faced a long road ahead of recovery—not just physically, but on every human level possible. “I didn’t sleep for weeks because [gymnastics] was my whole life. Nothing was worse than the fact that you didn’t get to end on your own terms. Everyone wants to end when they want to end. [The injury] broke me. It broke my coach. I retired from gymnastics, but still had injuries to deal with. I wasn’t sure where my life was headed, and didn’t expect to have to think about it so soon. I was the firstborn American in my family, so my dad didn’t have much experience with this. I had to figure out [my future] on my own.”

In the time between stopping training and retiring from the sport, Rebecca decided to apply to some colleges with application deadlines of March 30th. “During senior year of high school, I was always travelling, and even though I had friends who applied to college, I wasn’t familiar with the whole process. I only had time to apply to 5 schools, and honestly didn’t know if I was even going to college.”

Once the acceptance letters started rolling in, Rebecca had a better idea of the future ahead of her. “I started hanging out [with friends] and occupying myself, but I was always thinking about gymnastics. If anyone brought it up, I would tear up. And I don’t cry very easily.”

Ultimately, Rebecca chose to attend Boston University. She had been debating between staying in New York or moving to Boston. “Everyone wanted me to stay in New York to coach. I felt so suffocated by everyone. So I decided to go to BU. A lot of people were upset by my decision, since there were many people relying on me. I just told myself, ‘You know what, I’m moving.’ It was the best decision I made because I was able to start a new life.”

The transition from elite gymnast to college student was not an easy one. Academically, Rebecca was pushed more than she had ever been. “My high school career wasn’t traditional. I was absent a lot. It was definitely not at the caliber of what a freshman biology major would expect. Plus, I took a full year off after high school because of the Olympics.” Rebecca found herself in a completely new city filled with new people and living a totally different life than she had her first 19 years. It took a her a little while to warm up to her new situation. “I hated it at first. I didn’t want to be [in college]. I was studying all the time.” Indeed, there were a lot of differences between her life as a gymnast, and her new role as a full-time university student. “I was so used to the fact that in gymnastics, your outcome is reflective of the work you put in. Nothing was worst than me studying for all those hours and not doing as well as I expected, in those freshman weeder courses.” Another challenge Rebecca faced was that of weight gain. “The second I stopped gymnastics I started eating more, and I gained weight. For an average person, I looked normal. But in my mind, I was so fat.” Watching her fellow teammates compete at international competitions, while she was stuck studying all the time, was also hard. “I remember watching Worlds during my first two weeks of college. I was super happy for team USA, but I was sitting there, thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to be there.’”

As time passed, Rebecca was able to formulate a new life. “I just felt like I needed to succeed again and feel accomplished. I forced myself to be good at school. There’s nothing to feel good about when you have no goal or purpose. Academics gave me a new purpose.” Her three years at university were hectic beyond imagine. “I started working, took on an internship, and did research. When I’m busy, I’m the most logical and efficient, and don’t have free time to think about nonsense.” Her experience working in a research lab gave her a better idea of the career she wanted to pursue. “At first I thought I wanted to do premed. I always wanted to do something health related. I wanted to be in a field that gives me purpose.” However, Rebecca’s interests began to gravitate towards science and research, when she realized that doctors were limited in their ability to heal. Doctors were unable to save her mother from cancer. They were not able to heal her back injury. And that fact drove her crazy. Researchers, however, are empowered to find cures for ailments that presently have none. “I liked the idea of pursuing a path that is trying to develop solutions to a lot of questions. Working on projects that can potentially revolutionize the way we treat patients motivates me every day.”

Moreover, working in a lab reminded Rebecca much of her days as a gymnast. “Doing research gave me the same feeling as rhythmic. I come in every day, put in the hours, and some things wouldn’t work. I did gymnastics most my life, so I’m used to things not working. I had short term goals, I had long term goals. I like being challenged and pushed academically.” Laughing, she says, “I know, I’m comparing rhythmic to molecular biology.” Rebecca started falling in love with research. “I was spending way more time in the lab than I was supposed to.” Research was ultimately Rebecca’s first step towards gaining closure from losing gymnastics.

In terms of finding a new identity beyond that of a gymnast, Rebecca says, “Since elementary to high school, I was known as ‘Rebecca the gymnast’. In college, no one knew I was a gymnast. When I started adding people on Facebook, they were like, ‘Why are you certified [on social media]? Why didn’t you say anything?’ I will always identify with gymnastics. It’s something that has resonated with me for so long. But it wasn’t something I felt the need to portray myself as, [in college]. If someone is curious, I will explain [gymnastics] to them. But recently I’ve begun to transition more into a role in science and pursuing my PhD.”

In 2018, Rebecca graduated from Boston University with a degree in molecular biology—only three years after leaving gymnastics. Her peers would ask her, “How did you manage to graduate in three years?” Rebecca would reply, “I was a gymnast. This is nothing!”

 
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She is currently working full time under a two-year contract at a Harvard stem cell and regenerative biology lab, doing cardiology research. During her interview for the Harvard lab position, the interviewers told her that when her resume came, they really wanted her on the team because of her athletic background. “They wanted someone who’s efficient, good with time management, and really precise. In science, the difference of one microliter can make an experiment go really wrong. So [when they accepted me] they really placed emphasis on gymnastics.”  

She is looking to begin her PhD in fall of 2020 and is applying to programs this summer.

When asked whether her life now is a lot less stressful than her life as a gymnast, Rebecca replies, “The pressure I had during gymnastics was how much pressure I decided to give myself. And I do give myself a lot of pressure to do well in school, because I always try to do my best. My job is very academic, and there are competitors from different labs. But I don’t have the added physical training, emotional heartache, and having to deal with injuries. So my life is less stressful in that aspect.”

As for gaining closure from her sport, Rebecca says that it was only this past October that she had finally come to terms with her past life. She had been very close with her coach, Natasha, and they shared a vision of going to the Olympics together. When that dream was not realized, Rebecca’s coach told her, “I’ll find a way to get you to the Olympics in any way possible.” At that time, Elizabeth Kapitonova, an up-and-coming gymnast from Isadora, was making her way up the competitive ranks. “Natasha told me to come back to New York more often to coach Elizabeth and go to international competitions with her.” When Elizabeth qualified for a spot at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina this past year, Natasha wanted Rebecca to go with Elizabeth, as her coach.

 
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After the Games were over, Rebecca finally found peace. “I gained a feeling of closure. I wanted [the Olympics], and I realized that I did it, I got it in some form. I also realized that there is more to life than [gymnastics]. It was a two-and-a-half week trip, and I found myself missing my job back home.”

Rebecca is still highly involved in the world of rhythmic. “I coached, I am the USA athlete representative for rhythmic gymnastics, and I am certified as a brevet international judge.” However, she has concluded that nothing-- not coaching, judging, or being an athlete representative-- can quite replace the feeling of being out there on the competitive carpet, doing what she loved. “I realized that part of my life is over.”

 
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While limited in the types of workouts she can do, Rebecca still enjoys physical activity, like yoga and boxing. When asked if she still keeps up her rhythmic gymnastics skills, she says, “When I come into the gym, I’ll pick up an apparatus and start working with it, and it’s like I had never left. I also find myself randomly stretching my toes.”

Rebecca has a younger sister who is turning 9 years old in February. She followed in her big sister’s footsteps and is also doing rhythmic gymnastics. Rebecca had reservations about having her younger sister in the sport. “I don’t want her to feel like she’s being compared to me. It’s difficult for her because she doesn’t love it, but she still does it. Sometimes she says to me, ‘Well you were always getting first place,’ and I feel bad.” But her younger sister is also engaged in other activities, like playing piano and drawing. “She’s definitely very artsy,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca says that if she has children, she would absolutely enroll them in sports. “Sports instills discipline and character and hones skills that no other life situation can give. I’d enroll them in multiple sports, not necessarily just rhythmic, and see where the talent goes.” She jokes, “Maybe I’ll put [my kid] in a sport that can actually get her a college scholarship.”

When asked what the biggest piece of advice she could give to aspiring Olympians would be, Rebecca says, “I would say that I wouldn’t ever just have one goal in your career and have that goal be the Olympics. The best way to go about being an athlete is to have small goals that you can achieve in an easier way, because it keeps you motivated and logical. The Olympics are ultimately 6 minutes of routines. You don’t want to sum up your entire career into 6 minutes, especially if it doesn’t work out. There are so many more beautiful moments in those hundreds of thousands of hours spent in the sport.”

So what was the secret to Rebecca’s success in gymnastics? “Hard work. I was not the most talented in the beginner group. I worked extremely hard because I was extremely passionate. I’d go home at the end of the day and practice more in the basement. If you love it, then there’s an internal drive that pushes you to do the best. [Gymnastics] became my obsession and passion. A lot of times, people get distracted easily. The key thing is, when you’re in the gym, you’re there to practice. I tell myself, ‘I’m here to do gymnastics, not to do anything else.’ Having that mentality makes you efficient. The key to my success is hard work and a positive attitude. My coach and I had an amazing relationship because of my work ethic. You also need to have a fighter ability. You can work really hard at the gym, but it ultimately comes down to how you compete. You have to be able to pull out an inner force that makes you fight.”

Rebecca is immensely grateful for those who have supported her all throughout her 13-year career. “My biggest supporters were my coaches. I was really close with all the coaches in the gym—Natasha, Irina, and Shayna. Natasha always held me [on deck at competitions], but it was teamwork. I was their child, and they gave me love and shelter.” She is also thankful for her dad, who, after moving to the States when she was 11, drove her to practice and traveled with her to competitions. “Whenever I see people from the gymnastics community, they’re always asking about my dad, and I’m just like, ‘How do you even know him?’” She also appreciates the rest of her Isadora family, as well as judges and coaches from other gyms who have supported her and watched her grow, from the very beginning.

 
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It was because she had so many supporters that Rebecca felt she had let a lot of people down, when she had to retire from the sport. “I had started off my career with a lot of success. 9 years is a long time for people to follow your success. I spent so much time in the fame and spotlight and was constantly staying on top. Once I wasn’t able to produce the results I wanted and was expected to have, I felt like I was letting people down. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t get to go to the Olympics. It was that I couldn’t produce what was needed of me.”

When asked how she dealt with all the media and publicity, Rebecca says, “I did like the spotlight. In the rhythmic community, all the judges and coaches enjoyed my presence. I was very social and liked to have conversations. I had the opportunity to make an image for myself. I tried to be a good teammate and a good competitor, because everyone knew my name, and everyone was always looking. I never wanted to have people say anything bad, which in itself was a lot of pressure. But I personally enjoyed it because people care about you and respect the work you are doing. On the rough days, I have all those people who care so much about me, I didn’t want to let anyone down. The rhythmic community is not that large, so I had the opportunity to know about a lot of people. They became a family to me. Everyone—even the staff and coaches from different gyms—was family.”

Looking back, Rebecca asks herself all the time, “Wow, how did I do all that, [as a gymnast]? How did I think any of this was normal? I look back, and it’s crazy. It was a lot to take in and a lot to experience in such a short amount of time. There were a lot of things I had to overcome, and because of that, I became really mature at a young age.”

If she could do it over again, Rebecca, without hesitation, says that she would choose a life in rhythmic gymnastics. “Despite me having lifelong injuries, I would absolutely redo it. I’ve experienced so much, traveled the world, made best friends whom I couldn’t find elsewhere. Rhythmic was my passion, and it still is my passion. It was a special kind of love for something inanimate. If I could change my outcome, then maybe I would. But I would definitely choose my sport all over again.”

Rebecca Sereda has been one of my greatest gymnastics idols since I began rhythmic gymnastics, all those years ago. It was a dream come true to be able to finally talk with her and hear her story firsthand. How she was able to overcome adversity after adversity is truly inspiring and speaks to the strength of her character and size of her heart. Though she was never able to compete at the Olympics, she never let me down. Far from it. If anything, I admire her even more, given all she has been through. Even after gymnastics, she remains an inspiration to me. I truly hope her story can be heard by as many people as possible, because this young woman, only two years older than I, is the strongest person I have ever met.

Fun Facts

Birthday: May 5, 1996

Favorite color(s): yellow; hate pink

Favorite movie(s): “Good Will Hunting”; “Shawshank Redemption”

Kind of music you listen to: alternative indie

Hobbies/passions outside of gymnastics: traveling; yoga; boxing; reading; hanging out with friends

What languages do you speak besides English? Russian; conversational in Spanish

What are some words you’d use to describe yourself?

  • determined

  • caring

  • resilient





The Story of Virgin America's Famous "Dancing Flight Attendant"

 
 

In July 2018, a video of Virgin America’s “Dancing Flight Attendant” went viral, boasting over 300,000 views on YouTube alone. Who is the man behind the dance, you may ask?

His name is Mikey Tongko-Burry, a flight attendant of Virgin America Airlines (now Alaska Airlines) since 2011. While his claim-to-fame was the viral video, Mikey is a man of many talents, beyond his ability to put a smile on the face of his passengers. A rhythmic gymnast, singer, actor, cheerleader, and competitive adult figure-skater, “performer” does not even begin to describe Mikey, whose charisma and stage presence turns heads, every time he walks into a room.

Born in the Philippines, Mikey began rhythmic gymnastics at the age of 5. Rhythmic gymnastics, a form of gymnastics that combines elements of dance, contortion, and manipulation of hand apparatus, is historically performed only by females. This, however, did not stop Mikey from doing what he loved. When he was 6 years-old, he and his family moved to Southern California, where he continued rhythmic at the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics, reaching level 7 in the sport. When Mikey was 13 years-old, USA Gymnastics forced him to quit the sport, as it was something “only females did”. For a federation to go up against a young boy and force him to quit his sport because of his gender is not only cruel, it is a blatant act of discrimination, and would certainly not be tolerated in today’s society. But it was a different time, then. Mikey describes this experience as “having my heart and soul and part of my being ripped out of me”. Rhythmic was his first love. It is a sport that allows its participants to express themselves and interpret music. While his career was tragically cut short, Mikey credits rhythmic gymnastics for training him as a performance artist and opening his heart to the beauty of creative expression in front of an audience.

After rhythmic was over, Mikey continued to grow as a performer through cheerleading, theater, singing, and dancing. He graduated university with a degree in music education. In 2009, he moved to South Korea to teach English to Korean students. It was in Korea that Mikey fell in love with figure skating.

In the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim captivated audiences worldwide through her combination of strong technical ability, delicate musical interpretation, and effortless grace and artistry. She was the Olympic gold medalist that year and became an international sensation. Kim’s home country was crazed with pride, and figure skating— already a popular sport in South Korea— received more media coverage and publicity than ever.

Mikey, who was living in South Korea at the time, got caught up in the figure skating frenzy. At 25, he was inspired to start the sport. There was a skating rink 10 miles away from his apartment, where he began training. His rhythmic gymnastics background helped him improve rapidly in his skating. Within 6 months, Mikey had broken into the adult figure skating competitive circuit and won first place at his very first skating competition. He fondly recalls the widespread support he received from the Korean audience, who, following his performance, threw chocolates onto the ice as a gesture of their appreciation. There were so many chocolates that Mikey’s then-coach, Ji-Suk Park, had to get on the ice to help Mikey pick all of them up!

Mikey’s successes continued to grow from there. In addition to winning many local competitions, Mikey represented the US in 3 international competitions, and won all three! He currently skates in the adult silver 1 division.

 
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In 2011, Mikey moved back to the US. Within one month, he landed a job as a flight attendant for Virgin America. Mikey says that he never saw himself working for any other airline besides Virgin. “The airline is cutting edge, the planes look like nightclubs, and the uniforms are sexy.”

When asked how he manages to balance his work as a flight attendant with competitive figure skating, Mikey says, “Working as a flight attendant allows for a very flexible schedule. During the first few years, when you’re on ‘reserve’, it’s really busy, because you’re on call all the time. But after that, you have the freedom to choose which days you want to fly.”

Mikey’s weekly schedule is as follows: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are spent flying. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings are spent at his home rink in Oakland, CA, where he trains 2 to 2.5 hours a day and coaches 4 to 5 group lessons a week. He also takes lessons from his coach, Michelle Hong, who has been his coach since 2016. “I honestly don’t know what I would do without [Michelle]. She’s my best friend.”

 
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Even when traveling for work, Mikey is able to squeeze in some ice time. “I fly out to a lot of cities with ice rinks: Dallas, LA, Seattle, New York, Florida… After we land at night, I head to the hotel, go to sleep, then wake up early the next morning to go to the rink for practice.”

It may take some strategic planning, but Mikey makes it work. When asked what he loves most about competitive adult figure skating, Mikey replies, “I love the camaraderie between fellow skaters. Every competition is like a huge family reunion. We all want to see each other succeed, and there’s a tremendous amount of love and support within the adult skating community.” The dynamic of the competitive adult figure skating circuit, comprised of skaters who began skating later in life, is very different from that of the standard competitive circuit, in which young figure skaters all vye for a shot at the Olympics. “[In the standard circuit], everyone is super focused on making the Olympics. When you’re an adult, you have different goals.”

 
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As a veteran competitor and performer, Mikey has developed a pre-competition ritual that gets him into the optimal headspace for peak performance. When he arrives at the competition venue, he begins with ballet barre exercises, then proceeds to sit in his splits, 2-3 minutes on each side. All the while, he will have headphones on, listening to his program music. Deep breathing and visualization help him get in the zone. After he is finished with off-ice warm up, he will head into the arena, where he visualizes his program as it will appear on the ice. Once this step of the process is over, he heads backstage, where joking around and laughing with his skating friends calms his nerves. It is no surprise that Mikey, a people-person to the core, finds comfort in interacting with others.

Each competition is preceded by a 5-minute warm up session, where skaters are given the chance to feel the ice and practice their jumps before the competition begins. The minute Mikey steps onto the ice, he is in performance mode. Even during warmup, he makes sure to address the judges and audience and put forth his performance persona. “The cameras are all around you, and warmup gets broadcasted on television. There are people from home watching you.”

 
 

After warm up is over, Mikey is often exhausted and drenched in sweat. His exhaustion actually calms him down, such that, when it is time for him to perform, he is cool and composed.

When asked what goes through his head if he makes a mistake mid-program, Mikey replies, “I remind myself that there are 7 more elements in the program that need to be executed. If something doesn’t work out, then you gotta just move on. It is in these moments especially that I rely most heavily on muscle memory.” Indeed, there is a saying common among athletes: trust your training. Athletes, and performers in general, must be confident in their practice so that, should something not go as planned during the live performance, they can continue their performance without having a total meltdown.

Mikey, laughing, admits, “The last time I fell in competition was in 2014.” What’s interesting is that Mikey often has “horrible practices” at competition, but is able to deliver “great performances”.

 
 

A big reason why Mikey places so well in competition is because his programs, which he choreographs himself, are both unique and deeply emotional. In adult skating competitions, competitors perform two programs: the technical program and the artistic program. In the US, the artistic program is comprised of two subcategories that differ in musical genre: a “dramatic” program, intended to leave the audience with chills, and a “light-hearted” program that is more of a fun crowd pleaser. The US also allows adult skaters to use props in their programs. So of course, Mikey returns to his roots as a rhythmic gymnast and incorporates the hoop and ribbon, his two favorite apparatuses, to his skating programs. The end result is a masterfully put-together product that “the audience is not used to”. Mikey fondly recalls one competition where, in the middle of his artistic program, he threw his hoop up in the air right in front of the judges’ panel, and skillfully caught the hoop around his neck. According to his friend, one of the judges began clapping with delight, after the element was executed! To this date, Mikey’s favorite program is his 2014 ribbon artistic program, skated to “Carmina Burana”, an intense, hair-raising operatic piece. He was inspired by Ukrainian rhythmic gymnastics legend, Anna Bessonova, who performed her 2009 ribbon routine to the same music.

 
 

Mikey’s natural stage presence and ability to feel and express the music is what sets him apart from many other adult skaters. As a coach, he urges his students to “blossom into artists”. When asked about his coaching method and philosophy, Mikey says, “I am strict with my students because I want them to be fantastic. But I coach with a loving approach. If [my student] has a good skate [at competition], I will give them a hug. I they have a bad skate, I will also give them a hug.” Mikey’s stern but loving coaching style is both healthy and, research has shown, more conducive to learning than abusive coaching where punishment and fear are wielded as weapons to demand results. When asked about his thoughts on abusive coaching, Mikey says, “My students can’t learn if they are terrified of their coach.” While he does push his students to overcome mental limitations, like fear of falling, he also wants skating to be “fun” for his students, rather than “something stressful and frustrating”.

Many young skaters find it difficult to reconcile having fun in the sport with the constant pressure placed on their tiny shoulders to perform to perfection. Mikey says that, while skating is an intense sport, it is important to maintain the “love and longevity” of the sport. Many young skaters who push themselves past their physical and mental limits are likely to get injured or burn out prematurely.

For many young skaters, figure skating constitutes their entire identity and consumes their lives. When asked what he thought of this blind devotion to the sport, Mikey says, “It is true that to succeed in figure skating requires a large degree of commitment. But I believe that it’s so important to have an education to fall back on, in case skating doesn’t work out.” As for the role figure skating plays in Mikey’s own life, Mikey replies, “Skating to me is another addition to my life. While skating is a big part of my life, it is not my entire being. When I first started, the sport was all-consuming. Now, my priorities have shifted. My fiance and I are planning our wedding. We’re buying a house. And eventually, we’d want children.”

 
 

In addition to lack of life balance, many young competitive skaters must cope with negative body image. Body image issues and eating disorders are common in aesthetic sports like rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating, where emphasis is placed heavily on presentation and outward appearance. Mikey concedes that body image struggles are always going to exist to some extent, in these aesthetic, performance-based sports. In figure skating, it’s not just about the way you look; it’s about how you feel when throwing yourself into the air, rotating your body, and landing soundly on your thin blade. If you gain 20 lbs, your jumps will definitely feel a lot different than before. Mikey states that one major difference between the standard and adult competitive circuit is that, in adult skating, “it doesn’t really matter how you look. As long as you are confident, selling the program, and feeling good while skating, that’s all that matters.” He adds, “It is hard to constantly fight the scale when you’re an adult. You have day jobs, and sometimes life gets in the way. If I have to attend a work dinner, I’m not going to starve myself because of my skating.”

While work dinners and skating life may not be compatible, Mikey has been able to utilize his performance skills garnered through years as a skater in his job as a flight attendant. In 2013, Virgin America Airlines made a music video to go along with their safety demonstrations. “The marketing team told us, if there’s anyone who wants to perform for the passengers during these demos, feel free!” Mikey, being Mikey, jumped at this opportunity. “I first came up with the choreography for the dance while running on the treadmill. I pretended the treadmill was the aisle of the plane!” There were certain moments in the music where Mikey was able to show off his flexibility. “In the ‘Ding’ part of the video, my leg goes up. And on the lyrics ‘base of seat’, I do the splits.” When asked what inspired him to create this entertaining safety demo dance for passengers, Mikey says, “Travelling can be a stressful experience for passengers. I want to make travelling fun for them, instead of stressful.” The video of the “Dancing Flight Attendant” went viral three different times: once at the end of 2013, another time in spring of 2014, and most recently, in July of 2018, right before Virgin America was bought by Alaska Airlines. The public’s response to the video was overwhelmingly positive. “He’s really a great and motivated flight attendant”, read one YouTube comment. “This guy needs a raise”, said another.

 
 

When asked how different his life was after the video went viral, Mikey replies, “A lot of people recognize me. They’ll ask for pictures and autographs.” He quickly adds, “I am still the same person. This is just another cool addition to my life; I don’t get a big head because of it.” It is remarkable how grounded and down-to-earth Mikey remains, after the video. He was featured on multiple news outlets worldwide, like BBC and Headline News, and was even invited to meet the the Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, which Mikey states was a “cool” experience.  

I became friends with Mikey back when I was still a competitive rhythmic gymnast, long before his celebrity. He and I took contortion lessons from the same teacher to improve our flexibility in our respective sports. Mikey inspires me in so many ways. His larger-than-life personality, radiant smile, natural performance ability, and huge heart are just some of the many things I love about him. As a gymnast, I was trained not to laugh or have fun during practice. Even at contortion class, I seemed cold and standoffish to others, because I did not speak to anyone. Mikey was the first person then to make me crack a smile, during class. And it is that small act of kindness that I will always remember Mikey by.


Fun Facts

Favorite color(s): blue

Favorite movie(s): “10 Things I Hate About You”; “Center Stage”; “Bring It On”

Kind of music you listen to: top 40 pop; Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears (easy to dance to)

Hobbies/passions outside of skating and rhythmic: cooking and baking; watching Food Network; singing and dancing; watching beauty pageants (huge part of Filipino culture)

What languages do you speak besides English? Tagalog; high school Spanish; some Korean; some Russian (from rhythmic gymnastics and skating)

What are some words you’d use to describe yourself?

  • Optimistic

  •  Energetic

  • Bubbly




Michelle Yiu: Cal Student By Day, Ballroom Dancer By Night

 
 

Michelle Yiu, 18 years-old, is a freshman at UC Berkeley. When she’s not attending classes or buried knee deep in chemistry homework, you can find this San Francisco native at her home dance studio in Belmont, an hour commute from campus, diligently perfecting her craft of ballroom dance. Pre-medical student by day and dancer by night, one may well ask, how does this young phenom do it all? Here is her story.

To set the stage, allow me to introduce you to the world of competitive ballroom dancing, also known as “Dancesport”, where the sparkles shine brighter, the spray tans run darker, and the extravagance of hair, makeup, and dress knows no bounds. Within competitive ballroom dance, there are two main “genres”, if you will. There’s the International style of ballroom, which consist of two subcategories: Latin and Standard. Both Standard and Latin consist of 5 dances. Cha-Cha, Samba, Rumba, Jive, and Paso Doble make up the Latin syllabus, while Standard consists of the Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, and Quickstep. With its fast paced and sexually-charged dances, Latin is known as the “spicier” style of the two, while its more modest, but just as physically demanding sister, Standard, is evocative of Disney-princess balls, with its elegance, fluidity, and grace. Then there’s the American style, which consists of Smooth and Rhythm. Smooth is comprised only of 4 dances: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz. While these Smooth dances share the same names as those of Standard, think of Smooth as an “Americanized” version of Standard. Finally, we have American Rhythm, comprised of the Cha-Cha (different from International Latin Cha-Cha), Rumba (also different from International Latin), East Coast Swing, Bolero, and Mambo. I won’t get into the technical details of each of these four styles of dance. All you need to know is that they’re there, they exist, and people of all ages compete in anywhere from one to all four styles in competitions worldwide. Competitors are grouped based on age and level. Couples take the floor and perform for the judges and the crowd. With each passing round, judges eliminate couple after couple, until only the top 6 or 7 couples (depending on the competition) are left on the floor to fight for 1st place. So, there’s your crash course of competitive ballroom dance! Now, let’s hear Michelle’s story.

 
 

Michelle began ballroom dancing at the ripe age of 4. When she first began ballroom, she was already engaged in a plethora of other hobbies, including singing, ballet, modern and jazz dance, and even kung fu! When the time came to focus on one extracurricular, she stuck with ballroom, and has never looked back since.

Michelle started out as a 10-dancer; that is, she competed in the 5 dances of International Latin and 5 dances of International Standard. When asked what her favorite Latin dance was, Michelle replied, “Rumba”, since it was the slowest of the 5 Latin dances, leaving more room for milking out movements. When asked what her favorite Standard dance was, Michelle could not choose one; however, she was quick to add that the Viennese Waltz was her “least favorite”.

The first studio Michelle trained at was Genesis DanceSport Studio in San Francisco. As a little girl, she was paired with a young boy named Miles. Her second and more serious partnership was with a boy named Peter. They danced and competed with each other for about three years, but only did local competitions. At age 9, Michelle broke up with Peter and found a new partner, Kinsley, with whom she danced with for the next seven years.

 
 

Throughout their seven-year partnership, Kinsley and Michelle found much success in both Latin and Standard, training under coaches Vaidas Skimelis and Jurga Pupelyte for Latin, and Tomas Atkocevicius and Aira Bubnelyte for Standard. In the Junior II category, they made the finals in two major national competitions, held in Provo, Utah, and Baltimore, Maryland. 2014 was the young couple’s “breakthrough” year. That year, they qualified for two world finals, one in International Latin, and one in 10-Dance, and represented the US at the World Dancesport Federation World Championships.

 
 

Many young ballroom dancers start off as 10-Dancers, competing in both Latin and Standard. But as time goes on, and difficulty level of the two styles increases, many couples decide to specialize in one style, while dropping the other. In December 2016, Michelle and Kinsley made the decision to switch solely to Standard, for a few reasons.

One reason was because of Michelle’s recurring foot injury. Because of the injury, she almost stopped ballroom dancing altogether. She saw physical therapists, a podiatrist, a chiropractor, and even explored alternative medical treatments like acupuncture. Eventually, she and her team of practitioners were able to come up with a treatment plan that would enable her to continue dancing. However, many of her past foot aggravations stemmed from dancing in 3-inch thin Latin heels, as compared to the lower, 2.5 inch flared heels of Standard. In addition, Michelle has naturally flat feet, which made dancing Latin more difficult, as Latin places emphasis on high foot arches that create an aesthetically-pleasing curvature. In general, Michelle “didn’t like how [she] looked” in Latin, as she knew she wasn’t born with the feet or the body lines that many Latin dancers have. This general body insecurity created a very negative mindset for Michelle, which further propelled her in her decision to choose Standard-- a style in which foot arches and body lines are still important, but not to the same degree as it is in Latin.

 
 

Another factor that drove the couple to choose Standard over Latin was the difficulty of juggling both dance styles at increasingly higher competitive levels. When they moved from the Junior II age category to Youth, the pool of dancers became much more competitive, and it was difficult to keep up amongst other Youth couples, many of whom had already chosen to specialize in one style. At one point, Michelle and Kinsley were taking 2 dance lessons a day, 6 days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday were devoted to Standard, while Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday were devoted to Latin. Friday was their only day off.

They were stretched thin within their dance life alone. Now imagine juggling 12 dance lessons a week (not including outside practice time) with regular high school. Despite the rigor of competitive dancing, Michelle attended regular school her entire life, forgoing the options of online school or homeschooling, which many dancers do to spend more time training. Michelle was in her junior year of high school when she and Kinsley decided to drop Latin and focus on Standard. She attended the Drew School, a small, private independent high school, after spending Kindergarten through 8th grade at a private Catholic school.

 
 

The last reason why Michelle decided to focus on Standard was simply because Standard “came easier” to her than Latin. It was that thrilling feeling of “swing”, characteristic of Standard dances, that Michelle loved. She just didn’t get that same feeling in Latin, where most of the dances are performed in open-position, with the two participants dancing disconnected from one another.

In June 2017, the summer before her senior year of high school, Michelle and Kinsley terminated their partnership, after having danced their last competition together at Blackpool Dance Festival-- the world’s most prestigious ballroom dance competition. She spent the rest of the summer scouting for a new partner, posting in ballroom dance partner search forums on Facebook. There are not as many ballroom dancers in America as there are in Europe, so finding a partner was difficult. There are many factors that go into finding a right-fit dance partner: height, age, body physique, skill level, proximity, and amount of resources to pay for those expensive dance lessons. In Standard, it is especially important to find a partner who matches with you physically, as all the dances are danced in hold, with the leader and follower connected.

 
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The reality is, there is no easy way of finding a dance partner. A lot of it depends on luck-- being at the right place at the right time. Most dancers rely on either word-of-mouth connections or, as was Michelle’s case, find potential dance partners through social media. She and her current partner, Artur, met on Facebook, and messaged each other to set up a tryout. Artur, originally from Kiev, Ukraine, flew to California to try out with Michelle. The two ended up being a great fit for each other. And so, during September of 2017, Artur packed his bags and moved to Northern California, where he was sponsored by Michelle’s family, who helped him obtain his O1 Visa so he could work at the dance studio.

 
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For Michelle, dancing with Artur was different from dancing with Kinsley, in many ways. At the time Artur and Michelle began dancing together, Michelle was 17 and Artur was already 20 years old, which meant they could only compete in the Under 21 age division until the end of 2017. The level above Under 21 is Amateur, which is one step below Professional. Needless to say, competing at the Amateur level was a whole new ball game. Regardless, Michelle and Artur rapidly moved up the ranks in the Amateur circuit, making the final in major competitions like Ohio Star Ball. In Utah Nationals 2017, Michelle was in the audience, watching the Amateur Standard competition. Never could she imagine that the following year, with hew new partner, she would compete in Amateur and make the semi-final round, less than a year into this new partnership. Most recently, she and Artur traveled to Paris for the Open World Championships, where they placed in the top 50 among hundreds of couples. While she would’ve liked to have made one more round at that competition, Michelle says that Paris Worlds was a “great experience”. Sometimes, what is more fulfilling for her than winning awards is finishing a competition, “happy with [our] dancing”. The next stop for Michelle and Artur is the UK Open 2019, and they leave on January 11th.

 
 

With Artur, Michelle has felt much more encouraged to continue growing, both as a dancer and as a person. She says that her current partnership is “more balanced” than her previous one. The two know what they have to work on as individuals, and are able to bring their individual strengths to the table to better the partnership.

Good communication is the basis of any successful partnership, not just in dance, but in life. Michelle admits that in her past partnership with Kinsley, she’d used to “say too much”, without gauging her partner’s response. The result was a lot of arguments and general inability to understand one another. Michelle has learned from her past, and is better able to effectively communicate with her current partner. She’s learned that “stating the positives” and using “I” statements, rather than “you” statements, are all ways to foster a healthy partnership. She and Artur are “well-matched”, and he “inspires [her] to grow a lot”. Michelle says that the tell-tale sign of a good partnership is “when you feel that both participants can help each other grow”.

 
 

In August of 2018, Michelle began her first semester at UC Berkeley. Her decision to attend Berkeley was not a straightforward one. When competitive dancers reach the age of high school matriculation, many are faced with a crossroads: to dance, or to attend university. Not many dancers do both competitive dancing and school. Some don’t have the resources. Others don’t have the time, energy, or mental strength to spread themselves so thin. Michelle, however, is no stranger to balancing school with dance. She managed to perform well throughout high school, whilst furthering her competitive dance career. When asked whether or not she would give up school to dance full-time, Michelle states, “My parents have always wanted me to continue school, but school has always been something I wanted to do myself. School is interesting.” Shyly, she adds, “And I am alright at school, I guess.”

 
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“Alright” was enough to get Michelle into UCLA, USC, and Northeastern University, in addition to UC Berkeley. A diligent student and academic, Michelle knows that to put everything into dancing, without going to school, is “really risky”. She read a story of a former ballerina who, after getting into a car accident, was rendered unable to dance ever again. Fortunately this ballerina was able to pursue another career in medicine, where she found fulfillment in helping injured dancers. To integrate her passion for dance with medicine is something Michelle would like to do in the future, which is why she is currently on the pre-medical track.

While Michelle hopes to become a physician, she knew in her heart that she was not ready to stop competitive dancing, once college began. Her parents worried that she would not be able to handle the physical and mental demands of being a full-time pre-med student at Berkeley, whilst continuing her dance training. Many arguments arose between parent and child. Her parents said that, if they were in her place, they would choose to not continue dance, and focus instead on pre-med, which alone is so demanding. Michelle also discussed her options extensively with her coaches. At the end of the day, she was determined to prove to everyone, but most importantly, herself, that she would be able to dance competitively, while in college. That it is possible to do be both a dancer and a scholar. Despite her resolve, she was still very scared, going into college, of how things would pan out. Could she handle the academic demands of being a pre-med student at Berkeley-- a school notorious for its grade deflation-- whilst keeping up with her dance training and competing?

 
 

Michelle cites meticulous planning as the key to making her situation work. She took on 15 units this past semester and focused on keeping her GPA up for medical school. She now trains 4 days a week at the studio, taking lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and doing regular practice on Sunday. She is indebted to her mother, who continues to drive her to and from the studio, and back to Berkeley, where she is currently living in the dorms.

Michelle says her first semester at Berkeley was “really hard” and “super stressful”. It was definitely a big transition coming from a small high school with a graduating class of 69 people, to a large public university of over 30,000. This past semester, Michelle would “study nonstop”, and for the first time in her life, had to really apply herself to her studies to do well. Her busy lifestyle took a huge toll on her sleep schedule. In spite of it all, she survived her first semester of college.

When asked what kept her going during those difficult 16 weeks, Michelle said, “I spent all of first semester proving that I could do it. And I believe that if I want to do it, I can.”

To take the most difficult path of balancing pre-med at Berkeley with competitive ballroom dancing is a real testament to Michelle’s character, ambition, and passion for her craft. When asked what she loved most about being a ballroom dancer, she simply replied, “I love to dance!” Between the rough transition to college life and the academic rigor of a top-tier university, dance has been Michelle’s saving grace, “a place where I can continue doing what I love to do”. She states that her years of being a student-dancer has trained her in “time management”, a skill she carries over into her days as a university student. Looking back, she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t doing dance and school. The only time Michelle took a break from dancing was when she injured her foot. During that month away from training and competing, Michelle didn’t really know what to do with all her free time. Without dance giving her life structure, Michelle found herself procrastinating and “wasting time”. Dance had always been a huge part of Michelle’s life, and without it, she was left feeling lost.  

 
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Between studying, commuting to the studio, training, and traveling to compete, Michelle has had little time to partake in on-campus extracurricular activities. Even in high school, her commitment to dance came at the cost of a social life. She says that “dance took a toll on some of my relationships with friends at [high] school”. She’d often have to turn down invitations to hang out with friends, because of training. Her goals for her spring semester at Berkeley are to keep up her studies, continue competitive dancing, join a pre-medical club, and perhaps apply to work at Berkeley’s “Suitcase Clinic”, an organization dedicated to promoting health and wellbeing in the underserved population.

 
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UC Berkeley does have a competitive collegiate ballroom dance team, where college students compete in the same four styles of dance— Latin, Standard, Smooth, and Rhythm— against students from different universities. Collegiate ballroom is a great way for beginner/intermediate level dancers, many of whom first begin ballroom in college, to challenge themselves in a fun, low-key environment. Michelle currently does not train with the collegiate team, as she does not have time, between studying, her own dance training, and competing in the Amateur circuit. She has not really considered collegiate ballroom as an option, as dancing in the collegiate circuit is quite different from the type of competitive dancing she has been doing her entire life. If Michelle were to quit competitive dancing, it would be difficult for someone like her, who’s received professional training her entire life, to transition into a program where ballroom is viewed less competitively and more as a fun hobby.

 
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When asked who her biggest supporters were throughout all her years as a competitive ballroom dancer, Michelle immediately replied, “My parents. They have given me the financial means to take lessons, compete, buy dresses… I am grateful that my mom knows how to do hair and makeup!” Indeed, the financial cost of competitive ballroom is no joke. 45-minute private lessons can range anywhere from $90 to $300, depending on who you are taking lessons from. Competition entry fees and cost of traveling amount to a staggering number. Ballroom dresses can cost thousands of dollars. Getting your competition hair and makeup professionally done tacks on another couple hundred to your already impressive bill. Michelle is truly appreciative of her parents, who have unconditionally supported her throughout her 14 years as a ballroom dancer. “My parents work so hard to give me the ability to do what I want. They tell me to just focus on school and dance, because that’s what [I] want. I am very lucky-- I’ve never had a real job, besides teaching at the studio.” Michelle’s mother, whose work situation is such that she can make her own schedule, accompanies Michelle to the studio, and stays there until Michelle is done with practice.

 
 

These past 5 months of balancing student life with dance have tested Michelle more than she’s ever been tested before. Mentally. Physically. Emotionally. This young woman is a fighter to the core, determined to carve her own path, hard as it may be. She knows what she wants and is fearless in her approach to get there. A bright future, brighter than the glitz of the ballroom, is coming her way!


Fun Facts

Birthday: Aug 31, 2000

Hobbies/passions outside of dance? Reading, hanging out with friends, taking long walks, spending time with family

Favorite color(s)? Yellow

Kinds of music you listen to? I’m currently listening to Rex Orange County; I like relaxed, slow, alternative music; I’ll listen to basically all types of music (except heavy metal and rock); Sometimes I listen to ballroom music, especially when preparing for competition

Favorite movie(s)? I don’t like horror; I enjoy rom-com’s; I like all movies that have a strong, resonant message; recently watched “Aquaman”, which was a good action movie; “On the Basis of Sex” , “Battle”, and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are good ones as well

What languages do you speak besides English? Cantonese

What are some words you’d use to describe yourself?  

  • Lucky

  • Stubborn

  • Hardworking

  • Procrastinator (if I have too much time on my hands)










The Tai Twins: Forever Gymnasts At Heart

Callista and Cassandra Tai, affectionately coined “The Tai Twins” by peers, are currently third-year students at UC Santa Barbara. Callista is studying linguistics with an emphasis in language and speech technologies, while Cassandra is pursuing a completely different path in anthropology. Before their college lives began, the twins were competitive artistic gymnasts, starting the sport at age 8, and retiring at the age of 15. Here is the story of their life as gymnasts, and how they were ultimately able to transition into life after gymnastics.

Before gymnastics, the twins were actually ballerinas. Their mother had always wanted to see her girls involved in something “elegant”, and ballet was just that. Funnily enough, it was through ballet that the twins were exposed to the world of gymnastics. They recall a boy in their ballet class who would do all sorts of tumbling and gymnastics tricks. Seeing the boy perform such cool stunts made the twins want to do the same. So they begged their parents to sign them up for gymnastics classes. Their father was more willing; their mother was less enthused by the idea, but eventually caved in.

Enter, gymnastics. Artistic gymnastics, to be exact. Rightly deemed the most dangerous sport in the world. Intense by nature, where one minor misstep could result in devastating injury. Notorious for the physical, mental, and emotional demand placed on its athletes, who often peak by the age of 17. The sport is about perfection. Precision. And only the most disciplined, resilient, and strong-minded gymnasts can make it to the top.

Of course, Callista and Cassandra knew none of this, going into the sport. At eight years old, all they saw was a sport that would teach them how to do cool tricks, and that was enough to get them hooked.

During their seven years as competitive gymnasts at San Mateo Gymnastics Club, Callista and Cassandra trained hard, 3.5 hours Monday through Friday and 4 hours Saturday, whilst managing an academic life at public school. This student-gymnast double life was not an easy one. The twins sacrificed a social life-- they’d often turn down invitations from classmates to hang out after school-- because of training. Vacation time with family was limited, as gymnasts need to be training consistently to maintain muscle and keep up their skills. Any time away from the gym was highly frowned upon by coaches. Another thing the twins had to sacrifice for their sport was the amount of energy they could devote to schoolwork. Imagine coming home to a pile of homework after a long day at school, followed by an even longer, grueling training session at the gym. Physically and mentally exhausted, the last thing anyone would want to do is homework. But to forgo school was not an option, for these diligent girls. And so, they persisted.

 
 

Another challenged Callista and Cassandra faced as gymnasts was the issue of body image. In a sport that emphasizes lean muscle tone with little-to-no body fat, many gymnasts suffer from negative body image, which, when taken to the extreme, manifests as eating disorders. Fortunately, during their time in the sport, the twins did not worry too much about their physiques. Between consistent training and the fast metabolism of their prepubescent bodies, the twins were in the best shape of their lives, during their time as gymnasts. They were able to eat whatever they wanted without worrying about putting on weight. Cassandra notes, however, that one thing she disliked about being a gymnast was “Having a body that didn’t match up to those around me.” Gymnastics training is meant to build incredibly defined muscle tone-- both a blessing and a curse, as illustrated by Callista’s experience changing in the P.E. locker room: “The girls looked at my body, and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, your abs!’ While it was cool being unique, [having a different body] sets you apart, and can make you feel alienated.” The difficulties of living up to the clashing body ideals of society and gymnastics is not an experience unique to the twins. While muscles are glorified inside the gym, once these gymnasts step foot into the real world, many feel self-conscious about appearing more muscular than kids their own age. It’s a different kind of body image struggle, but a struggle, nonetheless.

Callista’s struggle with body image goes a little deeper. “It started in fifth grade,” she said. “It may or may not have stemmed from gymnastics, or just general body insecurity.” Being one of the older girls on her team, Callista was always conscious of her size in comparison to her younger peers. During her freshman year of high school, Callista put on some weight. Her coach noticed, and, at one point, pinched her belly and gave her a knowing glance. No words had to be exchanged-- Callista knew what had to be done. She started restricting calories, packing only one slice of bread for lunch. It was especially difficult for her, because at that point, she not only looked different from her peers at school; she now looked different from her teammates at the gym, many of whom had yet to hit puberty.

In our media-driven society today, body image negativity may have arisen, regardless of whether or not the twins did gymnastics. But gymnastics almost 100% guaranteed the twins to experience hyper-awareness about body image not only during their competitive days, but especially after they retired from gymnastics. More on that, later.  

Coaching abuse is another issue common not just in gymnastics, but in competitive sports as a whole. Many coaches view punishment-- be it verbal, like yelling, or physical, like additional sets of conditioning-- as the quickest, most effective way of teaching their athletes how to execute skills properly. Psychological research has shown, however, that positive punishment is in fact not an effective means of teaching new behavior, as doing so can introduce fear conditioning to the equation, which can hinder learning, instead of facilitate it.

When asked whether or not they faced abuse-- physical, verbal, or psychological-- at the hands of their coaches, the twins replied that, while they themselves never experienced extreme abuse, they did witness some other girls at the gym, many of whom were on the elite level, being verbally abused by coaches. The worst thing that coaches would make the twins and their teammates do was “extreme conditioning to punish cheating, or if [we’re] not able to stick a skill.” It is debatable whether or not such coaching methods constitute abuse. As a former gymnast myself, I concede that a big part of what coaches say and do is to strengthen the mind, body, and character of the athlete. There is a difference, however, between being a strict coach who is firm with what they want and punishes fairly and justly, and being an abusive coach who adopts an authoritarian role and punishes their athletes, both physically and mentally, without reason. Topics to be discussed at another time. Now, back to the twins’ story.

Competition pressure was another thing the twins faced while in gymnastics. All athletes must learn to perform with grace and composure while under intense pressure. Cassandra says that while she did get nervous before competitions, she would calm herself down before each routine by reminding herself that it was just like a practice. One competition ritual of hers was putting on extra chalk on her hands and feet, to absorb the sweat. If she was at a competition where there was not enough chalk to use, she would get more nervous. Like her sister, Callista also experienced pre-competition nerves. To cope, Callista liked to have a consistent routine on the day of competition, from eating breakfast, to doing hair and makeup, to putting on her leotard. Everything had to be as planned, or else the nerves would flare up. At the competition, Callista would try to block out external stimuli to get in the right headspace for peak performance.

 
 

In spite of all these struggles-- balancing gymnastics and school, dealing with body image issues, and competition pressure-- the twins clearly loved their sport, or they would not have stuck with it for so long. When asked what she liked most about being a gymnast, Cassandra replied, “I liked being strong, fit, and able to do cool tricks. Fitness training in P.E. class was always a breeze!” Callista’s attraction to the sport was less about the physical aspect of it. “I loved the uniqueness of the sport,” she said. “Gymnastics was very much tied to my identity.” Indeed, the sport was what distinguished the twins from many of their peers at school. It was, for many years, their “only” identity.

It was this very fact of their identities being intrinsically “tied” to their sport that made quitting gymnastics at age 15 so difficult. The choice of quitting gymnastics was not their own, and it happened very suddenly. Because of that, the twins were left without closure; they did not have a chance to say goodbye to their teammates and coaches of seven years.

What ensued was a whirlwind of emotions. Initially, there was “bliss”. After gymnastics, the twins had much more free time and no longer had to deal with “dreading” practices. After that initial euphoric period passed, however, the twins fell into a deep depression-- a depression that began at the end of sophomore year of high school, and lasted all the way until their second year of college. They would constantly ask themselves, “Who am I, without my sport? What is my identity now, if not a gymnast?” The identity crisis was real. They felt anger at having had to quit so suddenly, with no say in the matter. They also quit during the time when puberty hit, and their bodies began to naturally change. They continued to eat as much as they did while still training, and then some, because of the depression. The result was weight gain, which, in turn, negatively affected their mental and emotional states, as so much of their identities as gymnasts was tied to their fit physiques.

The twins briefly considered switching to another sport, like horseback riding. But they were discouraged by the thought of starting something brand new so late in the game. So they did nothing, instead.

It took many years for the twins to fully come to peace with leaving their sport prematurely. For a long time, they remained unsure of what role gymnastics played in their lives. It was their past, but it was also their present. They existed in a limbo state, for a while, unsure of who they were, if not gymnasts.

When the two of them began college at UC Santa Barbara in fall of 2016, they began working as beginners’ coaches at a gym on campus. It was only when they integrated gymnastics back into their lives, this time with new roles as coaches, that they were able to begin the steps of healing and gaining closure. However, as time went on, the young gymnasts continued to progress, and Callista and Cassandra, seeing this, were brought back to the painful memories of “what could have been”, had they not quit when they did. That, coupled with the negative environment of the gym where coaches would yell constantly, led the twins to eventually quit their jobs as coaches.

During fall of 2017, some students at UCSB started a club gymnastics team. The twins joined the club first as general members, then later took on leadership roles in the organization. Being involved in a new club where gymnastics is celebrated as a fun physical activity, without the added negativity and pressure that stems from competitive gymnastics, was incredibly fulfilling for the twins. Club gymnastics also helped the twins ultimately come to peace with their past lives as competitive gymnasts. Cassandra said, “My initial goal with club gym was to gain back some of my old skills. But eventually I realized that I didn’t want those to be my goals anymore.” Callista shared the same sentiment. “Club gym helped me realize that gymnastics was more of my past identity. My goals have shifted. I now know that I am more than my sport.”

As leaders in UCSB’s club gymnastics team, the twins had the opportunity to work with beginners who had no prior gymnastics training. Callista said, “It is so fulfilling to share my knowledge with beginners. I find it so much more fulfilling to see beginners improve and learn new skills, than if I myself were to hop on a beam and try to gain back new skills.”

Now, in their third years at UCSB, Callista and Cassandra have begun to develop their identities in many ways outside gymnastics-- and outside sports, in general. In addition to coaching, they enjoy being full-time students, and are focusing on developing their personalities more, while exploring career paths and potential passions unrelated to sports, like singing.  

 
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Despite having been out of the competitive circuit for nearly 5 years, the two still carry over the lessons they learned from gymnastics into their lives after the sport. Callista cites “persistence” as the main thing she’s learned from gymnastics. The sport taught her to approach life with a “just do it” mindset, namely, doing things even if they terrify you and you think you can’t do it. Cassandra credits gymnastics with her ability to deal with nerves and pressure. While she still gets nervous before giving a presentation in front of a class, gymnastics has taught her how to be okay, in those high-pressure situations of evaluation.

When asked what pieces of advice they could give to athletes still competing, Callista says, “Enjoy [your sport] while you can, because as you grow older, you won’t be able to do everything you used to do. If you’re not enjoying it, take a step back and reassess the situation. If the sport is not benefiting you, even if you are so tied to the sport, it might be worth it to take a little break. Ask yourself, is it worth your time and energy? Because it is not worth it to sacrifice happiness for your sport.” Cassandra says, “Once you stop, the transition will be hard. You will feel lost for a bit, but it just takes time. Just give it time, and you will find closure. It is also important to explore other avenues beyond your sport.”

Indeed, the question of whether it is possible to live a life as a competitive athlete while maintaining a semblance of “normalcy” has been a long-debated one. When I asked the twins whether or not they believed balance was possible as a competitive athlete, they replied, “It is possible to have a balance. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. It honestly depends on your personality and situation. Parental pressure is a huge factor as well.” Callista added, “Not only is it possible to have balance; it is so important, especially for when you inevitably retire from your sport.” While the twins attended public school alongside gymnastics, so much of their identity and community was tied to gymnastics. All of their friends were from the gym. So even though they went to school, just as most kids their age did, their identity outside of gymnastics was not nearly as salient as their identity as gymnasts. This is ultimately why losing gymnastics was so devastating. They were not only losing their sense of self, they were also losing an entire network and community that played such an important role in their lives.

When asked whether or not they missed their lives as gymnasts, both Callista and Cassandra expressed mixed feelings. Callista says that the nostalgia comes and goes, but in retrospect, the gymnastics life was probably not the best fit for her personality. She states that she naturally does not have very high energy levels, and as a gymnast, she found herself always tired and groggy, be it at practice or at school. While she does miss having something that made her unique, and sometimes wonders what could have been, had she continued the sport, she ultimately concludes that being a gymnast was not the best fit for her, and has come to peace with that chapter of her life. Cassandra also misses her sport sometimes-- both the sport itself and the lifestyle associated with being a competitive athlete. But she also admits that she inherently does not have the best work ethic and time management skills, which made being a gymnast and student all the more difficult. It was very hard to keep up with homework and training, while leaving time to unwind and relax.

I have known the twins since the third grade, and they remain two of my closest friends to date. Having accompanied them throughout their journeys, I can confidently say that these two young women, both of whom have been through so much emotional toil these past four years, have been able to effectively piece together their lives and identities from scratch, and ultimately close one chapter of their lives to write another. It is my honor to know two of the strongest, most insightful and deeply introspective young women out there.