Oregon State gymnast Leslie Mak’s parents always taught her the idea of limitless dreams.
The native of Toronto, Ontario, has tried to live by that doctrine during her career as a student-athlete, but there was one thing getting in the way of her aspirations of becoming an all-arounder.
An elbow injury Mak suffered as an elite gymnast during her early high school years had prevented her from competing in the vault, and therefore all four events … until this season.
Mak fractured her elbow while doing a Yurchenko-style vault and it set her back about 18 months. When she returned to the gym, she reinjured the elbow attempting the same vault.
“From then on, my doctor told me no more of the Yurchenko vault,” Mak said. “He said it was OK for me to do a different vault, but for me that wasn’t a good competitive vault compared to the Yurchenko. When Oregon State recruited me, it was sort of understood I wouldn’t do vault because I wasn’t strong enough to make the lineup.”
Despite not competing on the vault during her freshman and sophomore seasons, Mak starred for the Beavers, winning a share of the 2009 Pac-10 uneven bars title and earning first team All-Pac-10 honors on the balance beam in 2010.
Then, one day toward the end of her sophomore year, Mak was participating in sprints and drills with associate head coach Michael Chaplin, and she was as fast as Mandi Rodriguez – an All-American vaulter, who graduated last year.
“After that, he said, ‘We’ve got to get you going on vault. You’re really powerful,’” Mak said. “He worked with me on drills and made sure my elbow was OK. I think I’m stronger now that I’ve worked with the strength trainers at Oregon State.”
Still, although she knew she was stronger, Mak was still cautious with her elbow because she remembered how far the injury set her back previously.
“We knew she had all the attributes to be a great vaulter,” coach Tanya Chaplin said. “We just started off with drills, and let the vault progress to see how her body handled vaulting again. Going through the progressions is a big reason she feels confident. They took the time to slowly bring back vaulting. It was one step at a time.”
“Once I understood I was stronger at Oregon State, and the vaults weren’t hurting at all, I trusted Michael and myself and my vault,” Mak said.
That trust, and Mak’s power, has translated into success. In the Beavers’ season-opening meet against LSU, Mak tied for first place on the vault with a 9.875.
“From her freshman year to her junior year, I’ve really seen her grow into the competitor that she is,” Chaplin said. “In the three events she did during her freshman and sophomore years, she did very well. Being solid in those three events, she’s been able to put more time into vault, and has caught on so quickly. She’s stayed consistent and positive with it.”
With no injury holding her back, and the vault now in her repertoire, Mak is able to compete in the all-around, and has shined all season long. She won her first of five all-around competitions during the regular season in the LSU meet.
“I’ve always had the idea of being an all-arounder in the back of my mind,” Mak said. “I looked for inspiration from other Oregon State all-arounders like [former] Mandi Rodriguez and sophomore Makayla Stambaugh. It’s not an easy thing, but I’ve always wanted to do it. I want to do everything I can for this team.”
Mak, who is currently ranked eighth in the all-around with a 39.385 regional qualifying score, won the Pac-10 all-around title with a career-best 39.525 on March 19. In addition, she also took home a share of the uneven bars title, posting a career-high 9.95 as Oregon State won its first team trophy since 1996 with a season-high score of 197.200.
“We’ve always had it in the back of our minds that we could be Pac-10 champions,” Mak said. “We want to be regional champions and national champions – that’s always been our goal. Now, to see it actually start to pan out is really rewarding. I think this whole team has battled adversity with lineup changes and injuries affecting us. We’re able to fight through it and figure out a way to make it work.”
After winning the league’s all-around title and propelling the Beavers to a team championship, Mak was voted 2011 Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year.
“It meant a lot to me because I’ve put everything I have into this sport,” Mak said. “For me, individually, it’s really flattering and humbling to have gotten that award. It means a lot to me. From thinking I never would be an all-arounder to this is a dream come true.”
Oregon State will play host to one of six NCAA Regionals on April 2. Joining No. 3 OSU at the Corvallis Regional will be No. 10 Nebraska, No. 15 Iowa, Southern Utah, San Jose State and Michigan State. The top two teams will advance to NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 15-17.