From sideline to star
UCLA's Alyssa Pritchett becomes a key competitor
Walk-on athletes are usually the forgotten ones, regulated to the end of the bench. They are tackling dummies in football, chess pieces in basketball practices, desperately needed, but not highly regarded.
Alyssa Pritchett has proved that a non-scholarship athlete can reach star status and, though her ability was always evident, her belief in herself is what kept her on the bench until this year.
Pritchett was a standout gymnast for Wildfire Gymnastics. She was the Level 8 Vault Champion in 2002 and a runner-up on the floor exercise at the 2007 California State Meet.
She was starting to get the attention of college gymnastic coaches and received scholarship offers, but had already made up her mind where she wanted to attend.
“I came here when I was eight years old to a Meet the Bruins event and I just fell in love with everything,” Pritchett said of a visit to UCLA. “I loved the gymnasts, the coaches, there was just something different about it. There was something about the poise and how Coach Val [UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos-Field] developed her athletes not only as gymnasts but as people.”
That decision only got stronger as Pritchett got older.
“I knew I wanted to come here,” Pritchett said. “For me, it wasn’t a difficult decision. I didn’t get very far in the recruiting process. I decided early on I was going to come here. I knew I would grow more as a person here and it had everything I wanted. It had the whole package.”
The only problem was getting a scholarship.
“My junior year of high school, Coach Val contacted me and told me straight up they didn’t have any scholarships they could offer me, but we would love to have you on our team,” Pritchett said. “I was like, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I knew it was worth it for me to come here.”
Though Pritchett had resigned herself to being a walk-on, she also never gave up hope that she would succeed on the team.
“I think because I knew how much I would grow as a person here, I was okay with it,” Pritchett said. “I also like a challenge too. To me, to be able to train with the best of the best in my opinion was way better than being the star of something else that wasn’t quite as good. The chance to experience nationals and other elite competitions was totally worth it. I knew if I worked really hard, there was a chance that I could break into the lineup.”
That didn’t happen for her first two years. She practiced with the team and performed in exhibitions, but wasn’t part of the traveling squad and was struggling.
"She just didn’t quite believe in herself,” assistant coach Chris Waller said. “It took her a while to figure out a couple of things. If you work hard, you have earned the right to feel confident. When you are called on in competition, you can recall how hard you have worked and just be yourself. It took years for her to fully believe that.”
That lack of belief in herself was starting to become more pronounced and was becoming a distraction to the team.
“At one point we did an intra-squad and she would fail,” Waller said. “It was hard on the team and it was tearing down her self-confidence. We pulled her out of it. She realized she needed to do something other than hard work and this is a mental game she needed to conquer.”
If there is such a thing as a lucky break, Pritchett got one before her junior year. She was forced to redshirt due to a stress fracture in her ankle that required two screws and nine months of rehabilitation.
“After my injury I knew something had to change with my mentality, it wasn’t working out,” Pritchett said. “I took a step back and tried to view gymnastics from a different perspective. I put so much pressure on myself to make the lineup and after my injury, I saw I was making it bigger than it is. I focused more on being a better teammate and viewing gymnastics as something fortunate that I get to do. It allowed my gymnastics to release and I started to build more and more confidence and I got in the lineup.”
So far as a senior, she's been named to the Pac-12's second team.
“Without question she has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Waller said. “We always believed she could be really good, but we didn’t know she could be one of the best in the country. She’s taken what we have helped her learn and run with it. She has become a giant anchor for the team. Coaching her as been one of the most fulfilling things in my life.”
As she ends her career at UCLA it has been as rewarding as Pritchett thought it would be, but for slightly different reasons.
“[After] everything I’ve been through, it would be easy to ask why I am doing it, but I wouldn’t change anything,” Pritchett said. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t go through all this.”