Now that's what we're talking about. Strong IS beautiful. I mean, have you SEEN Ronda Rousey's new Pantene commercial? Those words alone are enough to express what we are trying to do at Sporting Chic and why we have decided to feature strong-willed, strong-minded, strong-legged women just like Sam Peszek. We want to motivate female athletes to feel empowered by their bodies, ambitions, and talents while simultaneously being inspired by their peers. Sam is a wonderful representation of strength and athleticism paired with a businesslike mindset that is bound to take her all the way to the top- a place she is not unfamiliar with.
Sam was a member of the 2008 silver-medal-winning Olympic team. While she suffered several injuries that year, Sam's dream of being an Olympian was ultimately fulfilled. Her journey was full full of hard work and fueled by a never-ending sense of self-belief.
"I knew when I was 5 that I was going to make the Olympics. I watched the 1996 Olympic team win the gold medal in Atlanta, Georgia and I knew right then I wanted to do that too. I told my parents, my teachers, and my coaches- even though I wasn’t very good at gymnastics at this age. I didn’t see it as a 'challenge' really because it was so fun for me and I had no idea it was going to be hard. I think the key is the fact that I made a decision to go to Olympics not knowing what obstacles I would face, but I knew no matter what, I would do what it takes to be on that team."
What Sam speaks of is something that hopefully sounds familiar to a lot of us. We grow up as young athletes and we admire the women who compete at the highest levels. We insert ourselves into their shoes and we see a future that we so badly want, regardless of the path it may require. It's an undying dream that we fight to hold on to as adults once we realize the sacrifices we might have to make. Making a commitment as a child is easy, but growing up and remaining committed through all of the realities is the hard part.
"I made that commitment to myself and I’m proud that I stuck to it. I think that mentality and attitude is what helped me make the Olympics. Everyone works hard, everyone has obstacles, but not everyone has that extra will that pushes them to go above and beyond- I was willing to do that everyday. I would eat, sleep, breathe gymnastics."
It's unique in sports to be so young and be competing at the epitome of sports- the Olympics. Sam was only 16 years old and she traveled to Beijing to represent the USA. Oftentimes, gymnastics takes such a toll on the body that athletes retire before they are 20.
Not only does Sam have a silver medal from the 2008 Olympics, but she also has three NCAA titles from her time at UCLA. She was the National Champion on balance beam in 2011 and 2015 and the Co-All-Around Champion in 2015. The ability to compete collegiately after participating in the Olympics is not always possible. As most of us know, the NCAA has strict rules about amateur eligibility. But Sam made it work for a few reasons.
"After the 2008 Olympics, I had a couple of surgeries. Since I was a power gymnast as opposed to more of the “ballerina” type gymnast, the difficult skills really took a toll on my body. I always knew I wanted to do college athletics because my parents always told me what an amazing experience it was. So, in 2010 I decided to be done with the elite program and focus on healing my body and [going to] college. I was looking at a lot of schools and, to be honest, it was a tough decision. There wasn’t a bad choice, but I wanted to pick the right choice for me. Ultimately it came down to UCLA’s philosophy on balance and I knew the coaches wanted me to be just as successful in life after gymnastics as they wanted me to be in NCAA. It’s also hard to turn down LA when you’re from Indiana," Sam told us with a laugh.
It certainly seems as if UCLA helped to prepare Sam for life after gymnastics. Sam and her Olympic teammate, Alicia Sacramone Quinn, started a company called The Gympire that motivates former athletes to stay fit and healthy.
"We post challenges or a sequence of exercises we encourage our followers to try. Our goal is to build a community (The Gymtourage) and for our community to have the mentality that the work you do in the gym translates directly to the real world. Gaining physical strength also makes your mind stronger at work, in your personal life, etc. Basically, we're using the lessons we learned in athletics to continue to better ourselves in every aspect of life. We plan to create gymnastics-based workouts for everyone focusing on strength, balance, and power. Again with the mindset that for example, the more balanced you can be while you work out, the more balanced the rest of your life will be. We’re excited to expand soon and are very honored by all of the positive feedback we’ve been receiving."
In addition to The Gympire, Sam did color-commentary for the Pac-12 Network this past gymnastics season and will remain on board for 2017. She provides an "inside scoop" to what's going on that helps the audience understand exactly how it feels to, say, stick a dismount, for example.
"I really enjoy this because for me it’s a way to still enjoy the sport that I love, while passing on my knowledge to the fans. My goal is for the audience to feel like they’re getting to know the gymnasts and coaches... I really hope that I can help more people fall in love with the sport."
Gymnastics is certainly a fan favorite of the summer Olympics, but it doesn't always attract the most desirable crowd.
"I’ve had lots of inappropriate things posted on the internet about me from a young age, which is actually disturbing. One time, a guy sent me fan mail with a one-way plane ticket to Brasil because he bought a house for 'us.' I was 15. CRAZY. Gymnastics is a beautiful sport, but I wish we could get rid of those creepers."
One of the issues with the perception of women's sports is the idea that we should look beautiful all the time. Women's gymnastics, one of the most grueling and physically demanding sports, requires leotards and smiles. It asks that the athletes make it look easy, perhaps in order for this "perception" to be fulfilled. Gymnastics itself isn't the problem; but, perhaps societal standards of beauty for female athletes are different than they are for men.
"No matter how painful, or difficult a routine or skill may be, your face can’t show it. Since we make it look easy and fun when we compete, it’s not really viewed as a tough sport. In football you see guys get tackled and the fans can see their pain; but in gymnastics, that part is all behind closed doors."
Here at Sporting Chic, we are certainly not opposed to the idea that beauty and athleticism can go hand in hand. We merely want to draw attention to the expectation and express that beauty is multi-faceted. Working hard, gritting your teeth, sweating through your shirt (and pants, in our case) doesn't make you less feminine. Luckily for us, Sam agrees. When asked what stereotype she would like to see banished from the female athlete community, she replied with this:
"That being strong is manly. To me, strong is beautiful. When I’m strong I feel empowered and able to accomplish anything."
We feel so fortunate to have been able to interview and report on such a stellar athlete and role model. Sam is truly a representation of all the things a female athlete can be: strong, ambitious, fun, motivated, inspiring, and dedicated.
"I want to be able to motivate people. My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to and from a young age, that was my mentality and still is. I want to be the person that spreads this message and inspires people to follow their dreams."