Sabrina Vega’s Return to Elite

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The plans of Sabrina Vega, the 19-year-old U.S. gymnast who won hearts with her beautiful expression on floor as a junior, have been a mystery for going on three years.

Vega was one of the top juniors in the country in the early part of the last quad, and was named to seven junior international teams in 2009 and 2010, including the prestigious Pan American Championships and Pacific Rim Championships where she had individual success in addition to helping her teams to gold.

In her first year as a senior, she became an important member of the 2011 World Championships team, contributing a solid bars set and a gorgeous beam routine to the team’s gold medal, a first for the United States since 2007. Though she didn’t qualify to any individual finals, she was ninth best in the world in all-around qualifications.

Unfortunately, despite the incredible start to her elite career, things didn’t come together for her in 2012. She struggled to upgrade on vault, had falls on bars, and though her beam and floor routines were lovely as always, she just didn’t have the difficulty needed to fight for a spot on the Olympic Team. After placing 10th in the all-around at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif., she returned home and hasn’t competed since.

Moving on to NCAA gymnastics or retiring is typical for a gymnast who doesn’t reach her ultimate goal. But Vega didn’t follow either of these paths. Instead, she packed her bags, left the gym where she’d trained her whole life, and moved to GAGE to be coached by Al Fong and Armine Barutyan.

Strange, especially when she’d had so much success under Romanian Olympic medalist Teodora Ungureanu, but Vega reportedly needed a change after her coaches told her that the Olympic Games were out of her reach. While the coaches weren’t being rude in suggesting this – just realistic, as Vega’s difficulty just couldn’t compare – Vega took it almost like an attack, especially when she made the decision to continue training to reach her Olympic dream in 2016.

She’s been living in Missouri and training at GAGE since 2013, promising fans that she’s kept up her training in an effort to make a comeback to elite gymnastics, though fans became wary after two elite seasons had passed with no Vega comeback. She also never made any plans for NCAA gymnastics, an interesting choice for someone who opted against turning pro and accepting endorsements. What exactly was Vega doing at GAGE? And would we ever see her on the elite stage again?

All of our questions can now be put to rest, as Vega has finally returned to the national team training camp this week at the ranch in Huntsville, Texas.

She told fans on Twitter that she’s glad to be back after battling multiple injuries in addition to getting used to her gym change over the past two and a half years. While this camp doesn’t determine any international assignments and, like the October camp, is meant to built routines for 2015 and work on upgrades, it’s still a huge achievement to be invited, meaning Vega must have shown through videos that she’s physically ready to begin working at full capacity.

(Vega joins her 2011 Worlds teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, 2012 Olympic gold medalists who both returned in 2014 after two year absences; Douglas came back to Texas in May while Raisman’s first camp back was last month.)

Of course, now that she’s really back, gym fans are questioning her decision. Is she really going to be much of a threat after not competing for two years when other younger kids have been training for 2016 nonstop? And if she can’t contend for the big international assignments, what’s the point of coming back?

Let’s address that question first. What’s the point? The point is that she clearly loves gymnastics and wants to succeed at the highest level no matter how plausible or impossible it may seem. She could be struggling to reach a 5.0 start value on every event and have no way to compete against girls with 6.5s everywhere, but if she’s doing what she loves, why should we want to stop her just because she might not be the best? The odds are against every gymnast who wants to make an Olympic team, so does that mean every gymnast not in her country’s top five shouldn’t bother trying?

In life, only two things are certain – death and taxes. In gymnastics, nothing is certain, except the fact that literally anything can happen. A girl who wins a World Championships all-around medal two years in a row can bust her knee on a DTY and finish her career in relative obscurity. A girl who falls off beam three times in one routine at nationals can make Olympic beam finals two years later. If you think something is set in stone, you’re wrong, because almost never in this sport do paths look like straight lines.

Vega has big dreams. The fact that she didn’t want to listen to Ungureanu when she told her the Olympics were impossible – the truth in 2012 when there were at least five girls outscoring her on every single event – tells us that she believes in herself even when something doesn’t look like it’s in the cards. Is there something bad about this kind of optimism or faith? Is she crazy for trying to make her dreams come true just because there’s a chance they won’t?

Will she have something to offer the World Championships team in 2015 or the Olympic team in 2016? I mean, she’s officially been back in elite for about three days, so I’d say it’s kind of too early to tell. But why are we jumping right to “she doesn’t have what it takes” when we haven’t seen her do anything in years? For all we know – and honestly, this is kind of how I hope things work out – she really clicked with Fong and showed up at camp looking better than she ever has. We don’t know what she’s been doing in the gym, so who’s to say she’s not looking fabulous and ready to come back kicking ass?

And think about this – her best events when she was competing were beam and floor, arguably the worst events for the United States at Worlds this year. If she shows up at the Secret Classic and P&G Championships next summer with these two events up to snuff, she’ll definitely fit into Martha Karolyi’s Worlds puzzle. Even if it ends up that there are no spots for her, there’s no harm in giving it a shot.

But if she doesn’t…who cares? Yes, the Olympics are her dream, but she also loves the sport and wouldn’t have uprooted her life and fought through injuries after the disappointment of 2012 if she didn’t. Even if the Olympics never happen for her, she’s not the kind of girl who would be content with not trying.

That’s my favorite thing about Vega. Let’s jump back in time to St Louis in June 2012. Desperate to boost her difficulty, Vega brought a DTY with her to nationals to replace her Yurchenko 1.5. She attempted the vault about seven billion times during podium training, and sat it pretty much every single time. Her coaches looked completely over it and ready to move on, but Vega kept going even after everyone in her rotation started strapping on their grips for bars.

She was so determined to hit that vault, and even though it clearly wasn’t going to happen, she wouldn’t stop trying. She never ended up competing it, but you could tell she wanted to so badly and kept going even when it was clear to everyone but her that it was a pointless effort.

Her comeback could go either way. It could be a wild success with her dream finally coming true, or she may not make it past Classics. Personally, I think she’ll surprise us all and come out much stronger than anyone expects, but even if it doesn’t, don’t expect her to give up just because people don’t think it’ll happen for her. She knows what she wants, she’s been smart about not pushing things to happen too quickly, and she’s been through it all before. She is a hard worker, super motivated, and willing to fight for her dream of going to the Olympic Games. Why knock her down just because she might not make it? How about we support her instead? It’s cool to be a realist, but it’s also cool to put your blood, sweat, and tears into achieving something you’ve wanted since you were five years old.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

20 thoughts on “Sabrina Vega’s Return to Elite

  1. I have two issues with Sabrina’s wikipedia entry.

    One is that is currently says she’s retired, which is dumb because she was never actually officially retired. The second is that it says that she “is an retired American gymnast ” which indicates the editor doesn’t understand grammer. “an retired” is making me twitch.

    In regards to Sabrina herself, while I have no idea what her chances are right now since she hasn’t competed in so long, all the power to her for doing what she enjoys.

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  2. I have always rooted for Sabrina Vega. She is an artistic American gymnast. I think Armine and Sabrina will come up with a gorgeous floor routine. I can’t wait to see it next year. (fingers crossed)

    This article brings out one of the most important aspects of gymnastics. Gymnasts train because they love the sport. The fans are grateful for their dedication, without which we would have nothing to watch. For the record, I don’t think anyone is criticizing Sabrina for continuing her career, only questioning whether she will make another World team, much less the 2016 Rio team. In the end, if Sabrina wants to continue, I applaud her every step of the way. There is definitely room for a beam-floor specialist on the U.S. team. And even if she never makes another international team, she (like every gymnast) should finish her career on her own terms.

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    • Thanks for your comment! I actually had two anonymous questions come in this weekend about Sabrina and both were asking “what’s the point.” I think on Tumblr and Twitter, the majority of the response to her comeback has been super positive, but there are those people who think “what’s the point of training elite if you can’t make an Olympic team?” and that’s exactly why I wrote this article – to show that the sport means more than JUST the Olympics. I don’t think she has many people criticizing her, but even Aly and Gabby have tons of naysayers who put down their comebacks and say that they have “no chance” at being relevant again, so I wanted to address those people who think the only reason anyone should ever come back is if they are 100% fully ready to be on an Olympic team.

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  3. This is a lovely article. I find it incredibly admirable that she’s on the way back. + Anytime is good for using the death & taxes quote 🙂

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    • Hahaha – I love that quote! BUT IT DOES NOT APPLY TO GYMNASTICS. Except death, sometimes, when Brenna Dowell is left off of teams and my heart explodes. But I always come back to life.

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  4. Lauren, at 19 has Vega now entirely missed her chance at NCAA? Collegegymfans show her as a 2013 high school graduate, so the way I’m reading the NCAA eligibility she had to start school back in August 2014 to be eligible to compete.

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    • She hasn’t really missed her chance – Bridget Sloan entered college at 20, I believe, and Brittany Ranzy, a gymnast at LSU, was still competing at 25 after putting it off. But I believe Vega said at one point that she doesn’t have an interest in competing NCAA…maybe she’ll eventually go to college somewhere but I think her opinion of NCAA gym after visiting a couple of schools was that it wasn’t for her. Which I get. I don’t think I could function on a team with 15 other loud girls, to be honest, hahaha…even being at regionals last year stressed me out because everyone was so…enthusiastic? And screaming all the time? Like, I could never do a sorority atmosphere and I could never do team sports. So if Sabrina is anything like me, I can fully see why she wouldn’t be attracted to it and why she prefers the calmer waters of club gym and elite. That might not be her reasoning, but when a gymnast says she doesn’t like the NCAA atmosphere I’m like yeah, I totally get you. Which is funny because so many girls prefer that and LOVE transitioning from lonely elite to NCAA, but for an introvert (and Sabrina seems pretty introverted) it looks like a nightmare! I could be totally off in suggesting that reason, but again, if she’s like me, I’d fully get it.

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      • Totally understand that she might not want NCAA, but she’s still an object of interest to NCAA followers.

        Britney Ranzy had an interesting NCAA career that left her competing at an older-than-usual age. But, she graduated high school in 2010 and competed at OSU in 2011, so she made the typical transition into NCAA.

        Sloan graduated in 2011 and started in the Fall of 2012 so her deferment just squeaked her in under the “you have one year to start” rule.

        I think it’s the same set up for the deferment gymnasts who just signed their NLIs and the ones who haven’t yet – Biles, Ross, etc. They’ll graduate in 2015 and have to be at their college by Fall of 2016.

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        • True…but Sabrina never signed an NLI or made any commitment so if she enters school at an older age and signs, would that matter? At my school, I had a two-time Olympic swimmer from Austria in one of my classes and because of his training he had to put off college for about six years. He entered school at 24 or 25, I believe, as a member of the DI swim team. Another friend of mine was a marine who entered college at 24 and he was able to join the DI crew team. I went to an ivy, so there are no scholarships, but it’s still a DI NCAA program…I don’t think age matters as long as your commitment to the program falls within a reasonable amount of time of you actually showing up to compete?

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        • I think military service changes a lot of things for NCAA. There are several current D1 football players who are veterans. For the swimmer friend, I wonder if his international status made any difference?

          I can remember discussions about the eligibility clock starting and not being able to be paused even when an athlete is not enrolled in school. For example, Biles is graduating in 2015 and will enter college in Fall 2016 and that’s the perfect deferrment scenario. But if she had graduated in 2014 and needed to remain Elite for 2 years to get to Rio, she’d enter college in 2016 with only 3 years of eligibility, and again if she’d graduated in 2013, she’d enter college in 2016 with only 2 years left.

          But there was talk of changing those rules and I don’t know how it all washed out.

          Anyway, I’m happy that Vega is well again and back at camp and wish her all the best.

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  5. I’m looking forward to her new floor! Though I don’t know how I’ll handle the end of her old one…
    2015 is shaping up to be one of the most interesting years for USAG!

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  6. I’m glad she’s following her dreams regardless of what others think! So excited for her return as well! I can see her on an NCAA team if she decides she wants to- not the most difficulty, but clean. Embodies NCAA!

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  7. While in the previous quad the mere thought of Sabrina competing for someone else may have been out of the question. I wonder if things don’t work out if she would consider competing for Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic the countries I believe her parents are from.I wish her the best…

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  8. Pingback: GymNews - 3 decembrie 2014

  9. Gymnastike loves to copy everything you did…not linking to the article because I don’t want to give them the promo…at least it isn’t straight plagiarism this time..

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  10. I feel like Sabrina has no chance at 2016, there are way too many current seniors and up and coming seniors with such high difficulty that I don’t think she will be able to keep up no matter how hard the tries. Her time has passed.

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