It is difficult to imagine a better start to a collegiate gymnastics career than the string of performances Nebraska freshman Jessie DeZiel has put together in the first five meets of the 2012 season.
In her collegiate debut against Denver, DeZiel tallied an all-around score of 39.575 – the highest scoring debut by a Husker gymnast in school history. She’s gone on to claim three more all-around titles in addition to capturing individual wins in three different events – floor exercise, vault and balance beam.
“I told her the other day that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what she’ll be able to do for us down the road,” Nebraska head coach Dan Kendig said. “She’s going to keep getting better and better.”
The early success has garnered a league-record five consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards for the native of Rogers, Minn., who is ranked fourth nationally with an all-around average score of 39.460.
The youngster’s splash on the collegiate scene comes on the heels of winning a gold medal with the U.S. at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.
It was the first foray into international competition for the two-time Junior Olympics all-around champion (2010, 2011), and began with a week-long camp in September at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, owned by former U.S. women’s Olympic coach Bela Karolyi and his wife Martha, who is the current U.S. women’s national team coordinator. The site has been recently designated as a U.S. Olympic training site.
“It was a really neat experience,” DeZiel said. “At the beginning, I didn’t think it was fun at all because I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know how serious they were. At our gym, we got to cheer for each other, and [at the Ranch] you couldn’t really do that. After the first couple days, I got to know some of the girls and liked it more, and started doing better.”
After two separate weeks of tryouts, DeZiel was selected to the U.S. team that would compete in the Pan American Games, alongside 2008 Olympic medalists Shawn Johnson and Bridget Sloan.
“It was intimidating at first, but after being with them for two weeks, I got them know them pretty well, and they were fun to be around,” DeZiel said. “They were always there if I needed something. It was really neat to have them on the team.”
DeZiel returned to the Karolyi Ranch for another week of training in October, and then headed to Mexico, where she competed on vault, beam and floor exercise and posted the team’s highest scores en route to a gold medal.
It was a last-minute decision to enroll at Nebraska for the fall semester while preparing for the Pan Am Games, and although DeZiel was taking online classes, she was still training with the Huskers and getting adjusted to collegiate life.
“She was here, and she was living in the dorms with her teammates,” Kendig said. “She stayed on top of things. She wasn’t even sure she would make the Pan Am Games. The next thing you know, she’s in three events, and then she was the highest scoring American in all three of those events.”
An added comfort for DeZiel during her journey to the Pan Am Games was first-year Nebraska assistant coach Dan Miller traveled with her for training in Texas and to the event in Mexico.
“I worked with him a lot,” DeZiel said. “It was neat because I came here as a new freshman, and he was new, too. We were both trying to get to know everyone, and I got to know him well at the beginning of the year, and that was good for me.”
While DeZiel’s experience competing internationally with Olympic-level athletes was a dream-come-true, being a member of the Huskers’ squad and performing at the Bob Devaney Center was also a long-time goal. Six years ago, she competed in a regional at the arena while attempting to qualify for Western Championships, helping her decide early on that Lincoln was the place she wanted to be for college.
And the team concept is something DeZiel has easily grasped. She loves cheering on her teammates in practices and meets, and has really flourished in the collegiate atmosphere.
“We’re all for the team and want to win for the team first before winning as an individual,” DeZiel said. “We have to count on each other – it’s a lot of fun.”
“She’s a tremendous competitor and we’re not putting her in any situations she’s not comfortable with,” Kendig said. “She’s surrounded in a lineup by good people and doesn’t feel the pressure. It is a great environment for her and she is thriving in it.”