Sabrina Vega didn’t think she would ever compete in college.
She was an elite gymnast with Olympic dreams. In 2011, she was a part of the gold-medal-winning U.S. National Team in Tokyo. She seemed to be on track to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for the London games the following year.
But when it was time to put the 2012 team together her name wasn’t called. It was a devastating moment for someone who spent the majority of her time — six to seven hours a day, six days a week — training to be an Olympian.
“It was hard. I’m not going lie,” Vega said. “You work so hard for something, and then at the last second it’s kind of pulled from you. It wasn’t easy. I needed time. At the moment, right after the Olympic Trials, I said I was done. I gave myself a couple of months. I knew I had some unfinished business.”
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That unfinished business, however, didn’t pan out as planned.
A series of injuries derailed the run she wanted to make for the 2016 Olympics. As she continued to train, moving from New York to Missouri to do so, her body wouldn’t cooperate. It became clear she wouldn’t be able to compete in Rio de Janeiro.
It would have been easy for Vega to give up the sport and pack it in. Instead, Vega sat down with her family and regrouped. She then decided it would be best to go to college.
As Vega said, when one door closes, another opens up.
“I never thought I was going to be a part of college gymnastics,” Vega said. “So to have the opportunity to come to Georgia and be a part of a team, I’m taking these last four years of gymnastics and really enjoying every second I have of it. It’s definitely a privilege and I’m blessed to be here. I did have that high level of competition as an elite, and now it’s my time to enjoy it, and really experience gymnastics — the love that I fell in with the sport to continue.”
In the elite world, that grind Vega went through caused her to have a “love-hate relationship” with gymnastics. In college, it’s been a little different.
Sure, there is an academic rigor that comes with being in college. But there is a social element that Vega is immersed in that makes being a part of a college team an enjoyable experience.
“It becomes a job as an elite athlete. It becomes work,” Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter said. “Sometimes you don’t want to go to work. Sometimes you’re just tired, or, ‘Why am I doing this again? Is this what I want to do?’ You get stuck in this grind of, ‘It’s so difficult,’ and you’re on edge all the time at trying to be the best you can be in all these things. When you finally get to come to college, it’s a life more so than when you’re an elite athlete.”
Vega, who competes for the Bulldogs in floor, vault and beam, almost missed the window to compete at Georgia. Chasing her Olympic dream, she deferred two years out of high school. She competed at the elite level up until two weeks before the deadline to still remain eligible for college gymnastics.
She decided on Georgia then and is now a 22-year-old sophomore. Given the age difference with other underclassmen, fellow sophomore Rachel Dickson calls Vega her “biggest role model on the team.”
“She thinks it’s so weird because we are in the same class,” Dickson said. “It’s not weird to me because even though we’re in the same grade in college, you have a lot more experience than anyone else and are a huge part of this team.”
Dickson said she can always rely on Vega to tell a joke just before she is about to compete on beam. Since arriving last season, Vega is often a relaxing presence for the team to help calm pre-meet jitters. She’s also a key part to the Gym Dogs’ success. In last week’s meet against Auburn, Vega anchored Georgia’s floor with a 9.950 — the highest score in the meet — that sealed Georgia’s first win of the season.
She also tied a meet-best mark with a score of 9.875 on beam. Vega will look to lead her team again in Friday’s meet at Arkansas, which will begin at 7 p.m. Vega is accomplished as an individual gymnast as someone who competed on a world stage. Helping land her team a victory in a team setting has a different emotion to it.
“It’s an amazing feeling because now I’m a part of something that’s bigger than myself,” Vega said. “All the hard work and the years I’ve done in gymnastics pays off when you have that reward of almost getting that 10 and getting that amazing score, and closing out a meet for your team. It all feels really great.”