Starting gymnastics at the ripe old age of 2, Samantha Peszek dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics.
“When I was little, I told people that I was going to be in the Olympics, and they would laugh at me,” Samantha said as she spoke to the U.S. Kids Forever Fit campers and counselors. “I wasn’t very good at gymnastics back then, so I don’t think people took me seriously when I said I was going to be an Olympic gymnast. But if you have goals or dreams, go after them and don’t let anyone stop you! You control you!”
Sam, as her friends call her, recently took time from her busy schedule to share with campers her experience of being an Olympic athlete. After countless hours of training, along with tons of determination and persistence, Sam’s dreams finally came true when she became a member of the 2008 U.S.A. Summer Olympics Gymnastics Team. However, things didn’t go quite as planned when Sam injured her ankle just as the gymnastics competition began.
“The first day of prelims during the last event of warm-up, I turned my ankle,” she said. “People across the room heard it pop. I think I tore about every ligament in my ankle, but I couldn’t show that I was in any pain as I made my way off the floor because that would have been a sign of team weakness to the other team.
“I still competed on the bars, but I had to switch roles a little,” she continued. “Instead of being a competitor, I became a motivator, trying to encourage all of my teammates. The switch was difficult for me, but it was what was best for our team. And that’s what I wanted the most, for our team to do well.”
It must have helped because the U.S.A. Gymnastics team won a silver medal, along with several individual gold and silver medals. As Sam told the campers, “Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you don’t have control of that –– so your goals have to shift.”
Now, 20 years old and a full-time student at UCLA, Sam continues to compete in gymnastics at the university level. When asked about any thoughts of trying again for the Olympics team, Sam smiled and said, “No, I am a little too old. And the type of training required for college team gymnastics is completely different from the training needed as an Olympic gymnast. So, right now I am just focusing on competing for my university team.”
One of the campers asked if Sam always liked practicing while she was growing up. Sam replied that most of the time she loved it because all of her friends were there. But on those days when she really didn’t feel like practicing, it always helped to call on her friends or teammates for support and encouragement. “It’s not always easy—especially when you have to practice at least six hours every day. I had bad days too, but that helps you appreciate the good days,” said Sam.
“It is important for everyone to have goals each day—even if they are just little goals. You can start out small, like telling yourself you are going to drink an extra bottle of water each day.” Sam sais she likes to take Sundays to plan her goals for the week and what meals she will have.
“Are you ever tempted to not eat healthy or have a lazy day?” wondered one of the campers.
“Sure,” Sam said. “Sometimes I have frozen yogurt or pizza, but usually I eat healthy because as a gymnast, it is important to be in the best shape possible. It helps to have a partner you can call who will say, ‘Let’s go get a salad’ or ‘Let’s go for a bike ride.’ It’s easier to be active while hanging out if you have a partner of someone you can talk to.”
Sam’s favorite breakfast is scrambled eggs. “But oatmeal really fills me up, and breakfast before a practice is usually fruit,” she said. “When I eat healthy, I have more energy and am in a better mood. When I don’t eat healthy, I don’t feel as good or have as much energy.”
Balance has also been an important part of Sam’s life. Going to high school every day, having five to seven hours of practice, and then doing homework each night left Sam with little free time. But Sam said she learned to talk to her teachers about what was needed, work ahead on assignments, and use her time wisely so between school responsibilities, practice, traveling, and competitions, she still had time to hang out with her friends and family.
When asked what Sam’s biggest challenge was while training as a gymnast, she confided, “It was fear. And doing a round-off backhand spring was especially frightening! I would just lock up!”
Sam eventually learned to perfect that skill, and although she still fights fears, they are easier for her to face. Sam said her greatest accomplishment in gymnastics “was learning to overcome my fears. You discover that if at first you are not good at something, you can still excel with hard work and effort. I also learned to take a step back, a deep breathe, a drink of water, think about how to do the move, trust myself, and then go for it!”
Campers asked Sam if she had any pre-meet rituals or if she feels nervous before competitions. “I listen to music on my iPod. Music really inspires me!” she said. “But I like to perform and look at is as an opportunity to show others how hard I have worked and what I can do. It also motivates me to know that my accomplishments encourage others to live healthy lives.
“You always have choices,” she continued. “Write down what you love to do and see how you can relate it to exercise and your everyday activities. I use to practice my flips while watching TV. If you like to dance, then get up and dance while watching TV. There are all different ways you can incorporate activity into your life. Try new things! I like to try different ways of being active. I didn’t think I liked hiking, but I tried it in college. Now I love it and try to find new or different places to go hiking.”
Before Sam left, she and the campers gathered outside to play a rousing game of clothespin tag. Activity Director Kyle Mcilrath challenged campers by telling them he had yet to lose a game of clothespin tag! Sam, the campers, and the counselors chased each other while snatching the clothespins clipped to their backs. We are happy to report that Kyle still holds his record for finishing with the most clothespins!
All too soon, it was time for Sam to leave. The campers thanked her for spending time with them. Sam has a busy summer ahead teaching gymnastics at camps across the country.
Thanks, Sam, for helping us get the first day of Forever Fit Camp off to a great start!