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