The status still sounds strange to gymnast Samantha Peszek after great success on the sport’s biggest international and collegiate stages.
|Sam Peszek competes on the balance beam at the NCAA Gymnastics Championships on April 19, 2015 in Forth Worth, Texas.
Her final moments as gymnast came last Sunday, when she won the balance beam title at the NCAA championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Peszek, a fifth-year senior at UCLA, knows it is time to step away from gymnastics.
“For 21 years, gymnastics has consumed my life, in a good way, but its time to see what else life has to offer me,” said Peszek, 23, who will graduate in June with a degree in communications. “I’ve done everything I can do on all levels of the sport. I am really ready and at peace with this.”
Peszek decided to come back to school for her last year of eligibility, solely for the love of gymnastics and her Bruins teammates. She competed all year with a smile on her face, hoping to lead UCLA to the national title.
The No. 7 Bruins reached the NCAA semifinals, but didn’t place in the Super Six.
Peszek went out with her best, winning the all-around and beam titles.
She shared her final moments competing with retired 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, who is a sophomore at UCLA and the Bruins’ team manager.
“It was really special to have Jordyn there, because she was the only other student-athlete who was on the floor with me,” Peszek said. “I asked if she could be on the floor with me. When I was done, I just looked right at her, and she said, ‘Welcome to the retirement club.’
“It was a really happy moment to share with her, because she totally understood. I have watched her move on so gracefully after she retired; she has found so many new passions in her life. I want to do the same.”
Peszek’s career has been stellar, but also marked by tough injuries. She hurt her ankle during warm-ups at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and could only compete in the uneven bars. She shared in the U.S. team’s silver medal but didn’t get to show her full skill range in Beijing because of her ankle.
While at UCLA, she has undergone shoulder and Achilles’ heel surgeries, forcing her to miss a season to recover.
|Sam Peszek stands on the podium after placing first on balance beam at the NCAA Gymnastics Championships on April 19, 2015 in Forth Worth, Texas.
“The sport was taking more of a toll, wear and tear on my body, and I know I just can’t keep going,” she said. “I’d be lying if I would say I will miss that part of gymnastics. I came back for this last year because my heart trumped my body.
“I have no regrets, and I am glad I did it. But my body has been sending me clear signals about things.”
Peszek wants to stay involved in college sports and gymnastics in some way. Because she retained her amateur status after the 2008 Games, she has not been able to make money off endorsements, camps or appearances. She hopes to ramp up her opportunities and also share her love of gymnastics.
She plans to use her communications degree, too, by moving into broadcasting. She has been working on media opportunities during UCLA’s season and is scheduled be part of the broadcast team at this summer’s P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis, where she grew up.
Still, she knows being near gymnastics will not equal the special experiences she has had being a gymnast over the past two decades.
“I will miss competing, feeling something greater than yourself, whether it was for UCLA or for Team USA,” she said. “Getting to wear that leotard and gear of the U.S., hearing the national anthem, there was nothing better. And then I came to college, and I felt the same for UCLA. I will miss the teammates, being part of something.
“This is a happy time. I did everything I wanted in the sport.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.