April 3, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford senior gymnast Nicole Pechanec can see the finish -- not that she wants it to end.
In her mind, it's glorious: A young Cardinal team continues its progress with a complete performance and shocks the nation to win its first NCAA title. It could happen, given the team's talent, potential, and senior leadership. And wouldn't that be a fitting goodbye to a sport that caused Pechanec to say the same, far too many times?
One thing's for sure. She'll be easy to spot at the NCAA Champaign (Ill.) Regional on April 7 and, with a strong team regional performance, at the NCAA Championships, April 20-22 in Duluth, Ga.
"My teammates tell me I'm the overly enthusiastic one," she said.
Watch Pechanec compete and you'll be mesmerized by her grace and artistry on the floor, by her control on the bars and her joy as she sticks the landing.
But each day of practice means a lifetime in the sport is drawing to a close. And what memories she will have:
At Stanford, Pechanec was the 2012 Pac-12 runner-up in the floor exercise, a scholastic All-American, and a four-year fixture in the Cardinal lineup. She also has competed in three World Championships for the Czech Republic, her parents' home country, and invented a move on the uneven bars that is officially named after her.
The years were not always easy. The sport and her personal life were intertwined so tightly that there was little to distinguish one from the other. There was frustration and frayed relationships.
But Pechanec found a home and peace at Stanford. The past four years have provided a sense of stability and a social network that she never knew. She's also come to grips with a sport that she used to resent.
"I love gymnastics," she said. "I love performing for people, because I can share my joy with them."
Now, she treats each practice as if it's her last, because very soon, it will be.
Nicole first learned gymnastics at age 3 from her mother, Yvette (Yveta) Sommer-Pechanec.
While growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, Yvette was among eight youths coached by Vladimir Prorok and Vera Caslavska, the women's all-around gold medalist at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.
Caslavska's career came to an end on the awards stand during the Mexico City Games. In response to the Soviet invasion of her country and controversial judging that cost her two apparent golds to a Soviet competitor, Caslavska turned her head down and away during the playing of the USSR national anthem. She was barred from competition by her government thereafter.
Caslavska officially was not allowed to coach in her home country, but assisted Prorok to some extent. Not until after the fall of communism in 1989 would Caslavska finally be recognized for her achievements.
Yvette prospered under the no-nonsense coaching methods of Prorok and the expertise of Caslavska, and represented the Czech junior national team against the great Nadia Comaneci of Romania in an Eastern Bloc championship meet in North Korea in 1974.
Yvette and husband Tomas Pechanec, a Czech national team sailor, knew they didn't want to raise a family in a communist state. For two years, in the middle of the night, they moved belongings from their apartment to relatives' homes for safekeeping. To move in the day would have caused enough suspicion to be arrested.
In 1986, they received permission from the government to take a vacation - perhaps as a reward for their contributions in sports.
"I knew I would not come back," said Yvette, whose father, a university dean, died a year later.
For eight weeks, they slept on a hardwood floor at an immigration camp in Austria with 50 people to a room while waiting for a U.S. visa. When it came through, they left for New Jersey where they had relatives, and arrived with their life savings of $3,000.
Working for minimum wage - her Czech university degree all but worthless - only added to what would be a saga of personal and financial setbacks and determined recoveries for Yvette, since divorced and remarried and now owner and coach of Twilight Gymnastics in Phillipsburg, N.J.
The sport and her personal life were intertwined so tightly that there was little to distinguish one from the other.
Prorok's influence - from style and techniques to drills - was strong with Yvette. Years later, when she opened her first gym, Sunburst Gymnastics, Prorok's methods would be passed down, not only to Nicole but to Kayla Hoffman, who would go on to become a U.S. national team member and an All-America at the University of Alabama.
It was a European style that emphasized expression over power, a style that shines through in Pechanec today.
"She just has a different level of artistry," Stanford's Alyssa Brown said. "It's everything from her toe point to her hands. It's the look, her presentation. That's been her focus, you can tell, throughout her whole career. It's about performance, and she's a performer."
Yvette had high expectations for Nicole and a strict manner that sometimes put the two at odds, especially in a coach-athlete relationship.
"It was gymnastics 24/7," Nicole said. "I never got away from it."
The solution was for Nicole to move, at least temporarily, from Kenilworth, N.J., to Aiken, S.C. Nicole would live with family friends Draha Kriz (a 1976 Olympian) and her husband, Radek, Czech immigrants operating Aiken Gymnastics.
Originally, the goal was to create a new floor routine for Nicole. But four weeks turned into three years.
"I was 12," Nicole said. "I would fly home every three months for a weekend, on small Continental planes. It was all businessmen and me, with an unaccompanied minor badge. I flew so much, I had the whole flight attendant presentation memorized. Then, when it was time to leave, there was this little 12-year-old crying at the airport."
But in retrospect, Nicole says, "Those three years made me who I am now."
Pechanec developed a sense of independence, confidence, and a love for the sport that sometimes seemed forced before.
"I thought to myself, maybe if I work really hard now, it'll be easier later," she said. "It'll set me up to have a more comfortable life. My mom did all of this so I wouldn't have the same hardships she did.
"I felt like I was doing something with my life."
Draha and Radek were even more strict, but they became a second family. Their daughters would tell others that Nicole was their sister.
Still, Nicole and her mother longed to continue their connection. At bedtime, Yvette would call Nicole and read from a book of fairy tales as her daughter would fall asleep with a phone against her ear.
"I read it over and over," Yvette said.
Often, after reading, Yvette hung up the phone and drove down the Eastern seaboard to greet Nicole by 9 a.m. A 266-mile stretch down I-95 through the Carolinas became a familiar passage in the 600-mile journey.
But, again, change was inevitable.
On her own
"When I turned 16, I knew it was time to leave," Nicole said. "You just know when the time comes."
Pechanec began a more rugged training regimen at the Parkettes Training Center in Allentown, Pa., and was prepared to go to a United States national team camp in Texas, when Yvette convinced Nicole that she could compete for the Czech Republic - created in 1993 after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia following the fall of communism in 1989.
Nicole was a dual citizen and therefore eligible to compete for the national team. Schooling wouldn't be a problem. She had been homeschooled since third grade and would continue her studies through an online curriculum. But this was another big move. The biggest.
The Pechanecs got an apartment in Brno, the Czech Republic's second-largest city. Yvette would often visit for a week and help coach when she could with the Czech program, but Nicole was essentially on her own.
"She had to be by herself and rely on herself," Yvette said. "But she always had help from me, in gymnastics and in life."
Laundry, shopping, cooking. Nicole learned how and treasured the independence.
"I enjoy doing things by myself," she said. "I was not lonely at all."
Her experiences carried her beyond her dreams. She competed at the World Championships in 2006 in Denmark, 2007 in Germany, and 2010 in the Netherlands. She also competed in two European Championships -- 2007 in the Netherlands, and 2008 in France. She advanced to the all-around finals at the 2007 Europeans in Amsterdam and finished 21st.
The meet remains one of the most special of her career.
"The main reason was the fact that my mom was right there down on the podium with me," Nicole told International Gymnast magazine in 2009. "Because only two coaches were allowed on the podium, she was usually up in the seating at Worlds and other meets. However, for the all-around final, she was able to be there out on the podium.
"She has been the driving force behind everything that I have done. She has been there whenever I needed something and has also confirmed my theory that moms are always right. Having made it to the all-around finals, I was able to not only fulfill my dream, but hers, too."
Czech teammates called Nicole "America." But in Europe, she competed under the Czech-centric name of Nicole Pechancova. The name has a lasting quality. She invented a twisting release move on the high bar when she was 15 and used it later in a World Championships. In gymnastics tradition, if you invent a move and use it at the Olympics or Worlds, it's named after you.
Home sweet home
The move - officially, the "Pechancova" - didn't help her too much at the time.
"I'm never going to do that again," she said to herself.
But it found its way back into her routine during a Stanford dual meet against San Jose State on Feb. 5, 2011. Her teammates anticipated it and let loose with a roar. Pechanec stuck her landing, screamed, clapped her hands and leaped into their arms. She won the meet with a collegiate career-best 9.925 - and since has improved her best mark to a 9.950.
"She's blossomed and grown in the team environment," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said. "What a great leader she's become. She inspires all of us with her passion for the sport and her enthusiasm."
Stanford gave Pechanec a chance to settle down, to truly have a home. The wandering between states, and continents, ended. For the past four years, Pechanec, an architectural design major with a cumulative GPA of 3.30, is thankful. Given the choice to compete for a spot on the Czech 2012 Olympic team, Pechanec turned it down to remain at Stanford for her senior season.
"This is the first time I've had something so stable," she said. "It's nice having a place to come back to. I couldn't let that go."
Now, it's coming to an end. The years of pounding from Yurchenko vaults and tumbling passes have taken their toll. Pechanec has broken her back, a leg, and torn knee ligaments. She also has gluten intolerance that prevents her body from healing quickly, and continues to feel the residue of long-ago injuries.
The entire season, and much of her career, has been a daily balance between practice and preservation. She has cut back the number of repetitions she does in practice to save her body for the final stretch.
It's a dance that all elite gymnasts much go through to some extent as they transition to collegiate gymnastics and adjust to less punishing training methods and reduced repetitions (called numbers) in order to remain healthy after years of hard training.
"It's nice having a place to come back to. I couldn't let that go."
"You still want to show your coaches and your teammates that you're not soft, that you can handle adversity, or a little bit of pain," Pechanec said. "But it's also about being smart. The hardest part for me is barely training, but still being confident, because practice gives you confidence.
"It's about finding the right balance. You're not letting anybody down by caring about your body."
Years of muscle memory allow her to get away with the minimum of pounding necessary, and Pechanec has produced her best season yet. She has five scores of 9.90 or above on bars, four more on floor, and has been Stanford's top all-arounder, with a high score of 39.450.
"She finally has complete confidence and belief in her work," Smyth said. "And now there's a sense of urgency unlike any she's ever felt."
One last goodbye
The final days of the season mark the end of a career - one that at times has been joyous, physically painful, and emotionally heartbreaking.
Still, she will miss it.
"Before practice every day, I just tell myself, nothing is going to stop me from having a great practice, whether it's a bad mood, or something hurting," she said. "I tell myself this is the last time I'll do gymnastics. I appreciate it that much more."
And back home in New Jersey, a mother is proud of her daughters. Nicole will graduate from Stanford and younger sister Monica is a student at another top school, Brown.
"That was my goal," Yvette said. "That my kids wouldn't have to struggle like we did."
The lessons have been learned well, and those who have seen Pechanec perform will remember the style as much as the athlete. The artistry and elegance have shined through -- the control on the bars, the power on the vault, the flexibility on the beam, the gracefulness of the dance.
"She's a special athlete ... a true artist," Smyth said. "Her work takes your breath away. And, in the coming weeks, I know she'll be appreciated for it."
Especially if that appreciation comes with the ultimate parting gift: a championship trophy. But Pechanec knows that such rewards are fleeting on a journey that has been a reward all its own.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics