Feb. 25, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com

As a young gymnast, Southern Utah's Elise Wheeler was rising through the ranks of club gymnastics with great promise, but as her accomplishments grew in the sport, her passion for it dwindled.

Wheeler, a native of San Diego, Calif., finished third in the all-around at the 1999 Junior Olympic National when she was just 13 years old. She moved up to the Elite Level, making the Junior International Elite Team in 2000.

"It was a really big change from Level 10, and a really big shock for me," said Wheeler. "Not that I felt a lot of pressure, but I kind of lost my love for gymnastics. I felt really overwhelmed, and ended up quitting gymnastics at 14."

While attending high school, Wheeler was active in competitive cheerleading to keep busy, but stayed away from gymnastics for over four years. Then, as a student at community college, she started coaching gymnastics, and found her love for the sport once again.

Wheeler talked with one of her best friends, Ariana Berlin, who she had trained with years earlier. Berlin was competing for UCLA (2006-08), and convinced Wheeler to start training again despite such a long absence.

"She told me she loved it at UCLA," said Wheeler. "She said it was so much different than club gymnastics. She said I should get back in the gym and start working out, and that I would be able to go to school, too."

Following Berlin's advice, Wheeler got back in the gym, and this time the effort was purely self-motivated.

"I did it all for myself," said Wheeler. "I didn't have parents influencing me or anything like that."

Wheeler worked out for a few months, and for the most part got back all of her skills. She was rough around the edges, but started talking to the coaches at Penn State, Washington and Southern Utah.

Southern Utah head coach Scott Bauman knew Wheeler's coach in San Diego, and drove down to take a look at her. Bauman was impressed with Wheeler's performance, but it was not until she got up on the beam that he knew he wanted her on his team.

"She owned it," said Bauman. "After all those years off, it made not one bit of difference when she walked over to beam. She got up there and was doing skill after skill with absolute technical beauty. It looked easy for her. We needed serious consistency on beam, so I said I would take her right then. I knew it wasn't that big of a risk or stretch."

"He saw a lot of potential in me," said Wheeler. "He watched my work out, and then sat me down and said he'd like to offer me a full scholarship to Southern Utah. That was my goal - to go college. Gymnastics was icing on the cake."

When Wheeler got to SUU, she was still trying to get back into competition-shape, and it was a tough transition.

"On our first day of official practices, we had our weight coach come in and everyone was running circles around me," said Wheeler. "It was a really big shock."

"The girl has a heart like you've never seen," said Bauman. "She wanted to be an all-arounder and drove herself from the day she walked into our gym. That first week or so, it was so hard on that poor kid."

But, once Wheeler began getting back in shape, her gymnastics began to flourish. In her first season in 2007, she competed in every meet as an all-arounder and was named Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year. As a sophomore, she qualified for NCAA Championships in the all-around, and then last year, she became the program's first All-American, earning first-team honors on bars and beam and second-team honors on floor.

"It was an amazing moment," said Bauman. "To do that at a small school like this and as an individual is virtually impossible. She did a brilliant job out there and really made a name for herself and our program. She really started to move the expectation levels up - it's something we've needed for a long time."

"Being the first All-American for gymnastics was awesome, but it also promotes our school and our program and community," said Wheeler. "It was so much more than me and my own accomplishments. It was neat to be the first, and I know there will be more to come."

This season, Wheeler has won the all-around in every meet for the Thunderbirds, and last week posted the second-highest score in program history with a 39.425 against Utah State. She currently ranks 11th in the nation with a 39.200 regional qualifying score in the all-around.

"Coming here, I have really found the internal love for the sport again and why loved it in the beginning," said Wheeler. "It was a great experience to see a different perspective of gymnastics, being older and coming back to it."

Southern Utah hosts Boise State on Feb. 26 in a battle of the top two squads in the Western Athletic Conference.