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Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Olympic break

By Mike Grimala

Samantha Peszek
By age 12, Samantha Peszek was competing nationally as an elite prospect. By high school, Peszek was putting in 30-hour practice weeks in preparation for the Olympic Trials.

This story appeared in the Indiana edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.

Olympian Samantha Peszek is really enjoying her senior year, and it has nothing to do with athletics.

Peszek is essentially taking the year off from competition, and for the 18-year-old Cathedral (Indianapolis, Ind.) gymnast, that's just fine. She's already accomplished so much, you'd be hard-pressed to deny her some "me" time.

A USA Gymnastics National Team member who owns a silver medal from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Peszek is reveling in the chance to finally experience a normal year of high school.

"I'm loving it," she says. "I had three hectic years, and now I have more free time for other things. I can hang with my friends more, go to more football games and participate in stuff like that. It's nice to kind of chill and not stress so much."

Peszek knows what she's talking about when she says the life of an elite gymnast is frenetic. She started tumbling at age 2 and advanced quickly. Peszek's mother, Luan, a former collegiate gymnast (and now the publications director for USA Gymnastics), encouraged her to pursue the sport.
Samantha Peszek
After winning silver at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Peszek sought something she hadn't been given in over a decade: a break.

"I was a crazy kid with so much energy," says Peszek. "I couldn't get enough of it."

By age 12, she was competing nationally and emerging as an elite prospect. By the time she reached high school, Peszek was regularly putting in 30-hour practice weeks in preparation for the Olympic Trials.

"It was the longest process I've ever been through in my whole life," she says.

After strong showings at the Visa U.S. Championships and the Olympic Trials during the summer of 2008, Peszek headed to Houston for the Olympic selection camp as a favorite to earn a berth on the National Team.

Another great performance in Houston won Peszek one of six spots on the squad, but she hardly had a chance to celebrate or let it sink in before jetting off to Beijing.

For a girl who should have been back-to-school shopping for her junior year, it was an unforgettable experience. Peszek remembers everything, from the Olympic Village ("Decorated like a Zen garden") to the extended adrenaline rush ("It seemed like forever until the meet came") to the star-filled cafeteria ("We saw Yao in there one day").

The one Olympic memory that brings her some disappointment is injuring her ankle during qualifying warm-ups. The setback limited Peszek to competing in just the uneven bars. Though she didn't make the individual finals in the event, Peszek still helped the U.S. team to a second-place finish and a silver medal.

"Standing on the podium, getting the medal, that's been the highlight for me so far," says Peszek. "Seeing all the American flags, it was so amazing."

That was just the beginning of a crazy year for Peszek. After the Olympics, things didn't slow down. First there was a trip to Washington, D.C., for a White House visit. Then it was off to Chicago for an appearance on "Oprah." Then came the Tour of Gymnastics Superstars, crisscrossing the country for three months with her fellow Olympians.

Even for someone like Peszek, who was used to being on the road for weeks at a time, it was difficult to maintain a balance between school and gymnastics.

"When Samantha started at Cathedral, we told them she was a gymnast and that she traveled frequently," her mother says. "They were willing to work with her schedule, and Samantha has always worked hard to keep up with her schoolwork."
 Samantha Peszek
The best part about time away from the mat: "I can hang with my friends more, go to more football games and participate in stuff like that."

Peszek would receive her assignments ahead of time before leaving school, and she would communicate with her teachers by e-mail. She also took a couple classes online.

"I'm usually good about time management," she says. "I've been leaving school since a young age, so it's something I acquired over the years. But last year was the hardest it's ever been."

Even when she was able to attend classes in person, it still felt chaotic to Peszek.

She would show up at least a half-hour early every day for extra tutoring, and she had to rush to finish homework before hitting the road again.

But the hard work paid off, as Peszek maintained a 3.9 GPA through her first three years at Cathedral. Now that things have slowed down, she's loving her year of normalcy as a senior.

Not even another injury could dampen her spirits. Peszek hurt her shoulder this past summer and had surgery to repair a torn labrum. It kept her from competing at the World Championships in London in October, and rehab has cut down her practice time considerably, but Peszek is embracing the time off.

She's practically swimming in school spirit.

"I love being involved," she says. "Cathedral has been so supportive of me, and it's really great to be somewhat settled in now and doing things in a normal way. I love gymnastics and all the places it's taken me, but it's cool to be living a normal life with my friends and not traveling all around the country."

Peszek has traveled a bit this year, flying to Los Angeles in November on her official recruiting visit to UCLA. She has since signed a letter of intent to compete for the Bruins next year.

She also hasn't ruled out another run at the Olympics.

"I think she's on a perfect timeline to go for it in 2012," says UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field. "She's an amazing gymnast. If she wants to make the Olympic team again, I have no doubt she'll make that happen."

"I would love to go to another Olympics," adds Peszek. "I'm going to keep training, competing at UCLA and see where it leads me."

It will probably lead to a return to the hectic lifestyle Peszek knows all too well, which is exactly why she's enjoying her time off while she can.