Oct. 19, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - The final throes of summer seemed to deepen Lake Tahoe into an even darker hue as a hint of autumn began to offer its presence.
It was in this late-September setting that the Stanford women's gymnastics team began to push aside the disappointing ending to the 2011 season and embrace the promise of a new beginning.
For the first time in five years, Stanford failed to reach to the NCAA Championships, suffering a pair of falls on the final event of the Ann Arbor Regionals when the team was in position to advance.
Nowhere was the opportunity better to start anew than at the team's annual retreat heading into the new academic year.
"We thought about last year and what was missing," senior captain Alyssa Brown said. "It was very clear we were missing something. I don't think we still know exactly what it was."
However, the team has its ideas. Last year, because of a series of injuries - all but one stemming from pre-Stanford days - six gymnasts missed the entire season, placing a tremendous burden on nine athletes.
But by the end of the season, the nine were physically and emotionally exhausted from carrying the load, and a separation between the injured and healthy took root.
"Everything just piled up, and at the end of the season, it was too much to handle," she said. "By the end of the year, we weren't in a good place."
The Tahoe retreat gave the gymnasts an opportunity to consider a different approach - one designed to create a trust in each other that would prevent the breakdowns of 2011.
"It's open and honest communication," Brown said. "If everyone on the team is comfortable sharing how they're feeling and what's going on in their mind, than we're able to help them immediately, rather than a month down the road finding out they weren't happy or something else was going on.
"At that point, it's too late. They're not invested in the gym anymore and excited to be there, which takes away from the team. It all goes back to open communication."
The retreat featured physical activities, including a swim in the chilly alpine waters, as well as team-building exercises such as assembling jigsaw puzzles with favorite team inspirational sayings.
Another included a bowl filled papers bearing inscriptions that might reflect a difficult situation and a request for advice. Someone would remove a paper, read it, and bring the concern to the attention of the team, such as, "This person is missing class or not going to tutoring. How can we help them?"
The highlight was undisputedly an activity in which each gymnast brought three photos that signified significant meaning in each of their lives. Freshman Pauline Hanset, for example, included a photo of a chicken. She explained that her family has animals and birds on their property and believes in a sustainable environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
Senior Jenny Peter brought photos of her family, her best friends, and an image of herself on Yosemite's Half Dome, to signify her love of the outdoors and willingness to take risks.
All felt the glance into each other's true personalities created an understanding that otherwise might have taken months to come to fruition.
"What we learned in Tahoe will transfer on and off the mat," Peter said, "because we've taken time to get to know each other."
There are five freshmen on this year's team: Alex Archer, Ivana Hong, Samantha Shapiro, Becky Wing, and Hanset. They need to depend on their teammates as much as they will depend on them. And the seniors are determined to prevent anything other than a tight team bond. After all, this is their program.
"You kind of feel you have the wheel," Pechanec said. "You have a sense of responsibility."
Later, back at the team's Ford Center training facility, Peter felt a strong foundation was established.
"That's why the retreat was so crucial," she said. "We got to know each other, flat out. Last year is not going to repeat itself. We're going to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Stanford opens its season Jan. 15 with the NorCal Quad Meet at Burnham Pavilion.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics