In Through The Out Door: Going From NCAA to Elite Gymnastics

Venezuela's Jessica López Arocha, NCAA standout at University of Denver 2006-2009, three-time Olympian and still competing internationally today, shown here on bars at ESPN2's Pro Gymnastics Challenge in 2013 (my photo, repeated at the end of this article so you can see it uncropped by the WP theme)
gymnast Alicia Sacramone on floor exercise
Alicia Sacramone on FX at 2008 Olympic Trials in Philadelphia (my photo)

As most of you reading this know, the path of a serious female gymnast usually follows one of a handful of familiar patterns.

Of course I’ll first mention that anywhere along these various paths, injury may also bring the end to a career, which is an ever-present risk at every level of the sport (and I know there can be other paths for a gymnast’s career, I generalizing here).

In some cases, the gymnast may decide at some point she doesn’t like gymnastics well enough to put in the sacrifices and countless hours of training, and opts to quit the sport as a competitor somewhere around level 7 or 8 and move on to something else. Some reach level 9 or 10, and decide they don’t want to pursue hopes of reaching international elite level, perhaps lacking the extraordinary dedication, talent or money required. Many of those who reach level 9 or 10 opt for NCAA gymnastics, and often get a college scholarship to continue gymnastics another four years at the collegiate level (which most find less demanding and more enjoyable than club gymnastics). Some r

Mohini Bhardwaj de Freitas dismounts UB at 2001 US Gymnastics Championships, shortly after finishing her NCAA career at UCLA. (my photo)

each the elite level, but fail to make a national team or to have significant success there. Some of them just retire from the sport, some at that point go on to NCAA, and others go into coaching at a club or college.

Then there are the truly elite, those who seriously compete

for a berth at the US Championships, for a spot on the US national team, even a shot at the Olympics. Some make it, many more don’t. But once a gymnast reaches the international elite level, sooner or later their career ends. At that point, one of three things happens: 1) Some simply retire and move on with life, having had enough of gymnastics and happy to leave it behind; 2) some decide to keep plugging away at the elite level another four years in hopes of making the Olympic team (again, or for the first time), willing and able to take on the sacrifice and expense of elite training; 3) some retire from the international elite scene and take a scholarship to a major college, and transition to the world of NCAA collegiate gymnastics.
One path we don’t expect to find is for a gymnast to embark upon an NCAA gymnastics career, and then afterwards enter (again or for the first time) the ranks of international elite competition. There are quite a few reasons why this is

UCLA alum and former US national team member Vanessa Zamarripa, shown here at ESPN2’s Pro Gymnastics Challenge in 2013. (My photo)

a rare occurrence, which I won’t get into here, but it is indeed very rare. But every so often, there is a gymnast who doesn’t follow the usual path; an unconventional individual willing to swim against the current, one who goes in through the out door, competing at the international elite level AFTER competing at the collegiate level. Here is a list of those known to have done so (I was aware of four of these off the top of my head, but thanks to Maria at here and the amazing Lauren at here I have come upon several more):

1. Alicia Sacramone, who continued her elite training and competition for a year while also a full-time student and member of the gymnastics team at Brown University, later switching to volunteer assistant coach there (both my photos, by the way);
2. Mohini Bhardwaj de Freitas, who re-entered the elite ranks after an illustrious career at UCLA, where she led the Bruins to back-to-back national championships, making the US Worlds in 2001 and going on to lead the 2004 US Olympic Team to team silver as team captain at age 26, alongside stars Carly Patterson and Courtney Kupets;
3. Anna Li of UCLA returned to elite after her NCAA career, becoming an alternate for t

Alicia Sacramone tried doing NCAA and elite at the same time, but opted to pursue elite and become volunteer assistant coach at Brown U. (my photo)

he 2012 US Olympic team;
4. Jessica López Arocha, who set a number of school records competing for Denver University, and in 2016 represented Venezuela in her THIRD Olympic Games in 2016, placing 7th all-around in Rio.
5. Melissa Doucette went elite after graduating from Bridgeport, and qualified to classics at age 24.

6. Casey Jo Magee tried elite after her career at Arkansas, and reached US Nationals at age 22, making the national team;

7. Jenny Hansen, whose career at the University of Kentucky included three straight NCAA all-around titles, attempted to go back to elite in 2011 while in her 30s.
8. Vanessa Zamarippa did elite one summer during her UCLA career, making 2010 US Nationals and competing for a spot on the US Worlds team;
9. Daria Bijak represented Germany at the Olympics while still competing for Utah in NCAA;
10. Mackenzie Caquatto continued elite after her freshman year at Florida, nearly making the 2011 US Worlds team, but for an injury at selection camp.
11. Brittany Rogers recently represented Canada at Pac Rims a few days before competing for Georgia at NCAA Championships.
12. Brenna Dowell took time off from Oklahoma to make the 2015 US Worlds team and compete at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

Venezuela’s Jessica López Arocha, NCAA standout at University of Denver 2006-2009, three-time Olympian and still competing internationally today, shown here on bars at ESPN2’s Pro Gymnastics Challenge in 2013 (my photo, repeated here so you can see it uncropped by the WP theme)

These women have shown that there is not just one way to do things, and that convention and others’ expectations can create artificial barriers that can be overcome by sufficient dedication, sacrifice, courage, and belief in oneself and one’s dreams. Considering the tremendous hard work and sacrifice high-level gymnastics training requires, all gymnasts who reach level 9 and beyond are simply amazing in my book, but these few women are truly remarkable for trying to do what many consider nearly impossible.

[NOTE: If you know of other gymnasts who belong on this list, please contact me, or comment, if I’ve figured out how to activate comments without hordes of spam, or comment on my Gym2Day Facebook page; I’m going to try to get comments squared away soon, but I don’t have a lot of time to fiddle with it right now]

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