Unbreakable Spirit

April 20, 2007

By Liza David
UCLA Asst. Sports Information Director

Walking again after a horrific car accident that left her with a myriad of injuries seemed uncertain at one point for Ariana Berlin. Performing gymnastics again wasn't going to happen, and forget earning a college gymnastics scholarship. But here Berlin stands, the 2006 Pac-10 Gymnastics Co-Freshman of the Year, a scholarship athlete, and the heart and soul of the UCLA Gymnastics team.

Berlin, now a sophomore, has overcome so many insurmountable odds in the last six years that no one doubts she will be in her usual leadoff spot for the Bruins when they open competition on Thursday evening at the NCAA Championships, despite an enormous amount of pain in her leg and ankle that put her on crutches days after the Regional Championships April 14.

She was pulled from floor exercise in the final rotation of the Regional meet after the ankle she crunched in March at Alabama began to hurt during vault warmups and throughout her uneven bars and balance beam routines. She thought she would still be able to compete on floor but compensated for the hurt ankle by putting all her weight on her bad leg, which caused that to flare up.

Berlin's leg ached even more the following day, and two days later, she was on crutches, hardly able to walk.

'I was limping so badly that I had to go on crutches and take all the weight off my leg in order for it to heal,' said Berlin. 'It's a little bit worse than normal, but not so extreme. I'm sure it will be fine come competition time.'

The pounding of potentially back-to-back days of competition is a struggle for any gymnast, much less one who has to endure the type of pain Berlin does from the rod that is still in her leg from her 2001 car accident. Doing routines in practice can be so painful for her that she rarely trains during the week and does very limited skills during warm-ups before the meets. Berlin is used to running on adrenaline come competition time, and she thinks next week's Championships will be no different.

'I get that adrenaline boost, and that helps, and I'm kind of relying on that right now, especially since I haven't been training that much,' she said.

This kind of determination and heart are what compelled UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field to offer Berlin a walk-on spot on the team despite a five-year competition layoff.

Berlin was a 14 year-old budding elite gymnast when she and her mother Susan went on shopping excursion that would change her life. As they drove down the freeway, they were struck from behind by a speeding car, which sent their car tumbling. Ariana spent five days in an induced coma with two collapsed lungs, two broken legs, a broken wrist, broken collarbone and cracked ribs. Her mother survived the accident with a broken tibia, shattered scapula and minor brain trauma.

Berlin tried to return to gymnastics a year after the accident, but the leg pain made it difficult. She then committed full-time to her second love, hip-hop and break-dancing, joining the renowned dance troupe Culture Shock, dancing in international showcases and performing in the summer at SeaWorld San Diego. It was there that Berlin met Kondos Field, who annually choreographs the park's Summer Nights production. Kondos Field quickly became impressed by Berlin's work ethic, respect for her choreographers and directors, and her diligence towards learning and perfecting her performance.

'I was surprised at the maturity of someone so young because everyone in the cast was well over 18, and here's this little 15 year-old out there hanging with them easily,' recalled Kondos Field.

After spending time with Kondos Field and being around the gymnastics shows at the park, Berlin realized that her love for the sport had not faded. Berlin met with Kondos Field, told her about her long-time dream to compete for UCLA, how the accident had cut short that dream and how much she wanted to return to the sport. She asked Kondos Field if she could walk on to the team if she could regain her gymnastics skills.

Ari is the first person I'd pick to be on my lifeboat because she's going to find a way to save the boat, not just herself. She would never in one moment say we're going to die. She'd find a way to save the boat.
UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field

'Without even any hesitation, simply because of her respect, her work ethic, her ability to blend in and work well with anyone, I was thrilled at the possibility of having her on the team, especially to have someone who understood performance as much as she did,' said Kondos Field. 'It's often difficult to get gymnasts to perform outside of their event, to really project into the audience and perform, and I thought she could be a great example to the team with that.'

Berlin returned to the gym the next week and quickly regained her skills. Kondos Field joked with her a few months later, asking her to graduate early and come in the next year. Berlin did just that, and in September of 2005, she proudly became a member of the UCLA Gymnastics squad.

'Every single time I walked through campus, I could not believe I was at UCLA,' Berlin said. 'Just competing ... oh my gosh ... it was probably one of the best moments I had ever experienced in my life. It's so clichéd, but it was a dream come true.'

No one knew just what to expect from Berlin when the season started. It had been five years, after all, since her last competition. Kondos Field initially had just hoped, at the very least, to put Berlin in on floor in exhibition, doing cartwheels for her tumbling passes, so that people could see her dance. But by October, she was making the competitive lineup on bars and beam for the team's intra-squad.

Berlin's competitive fire was stoked.

'As we were walking out of a team meeting, she went up to me and asked 'Who do I have to beat out to compete in the all-around?',' Kondos Field recalled with a chuckle. 'I said, 'First of all, what happened to you being comfortable just competing exhibition? And now you're on two events!' And she said, 'Well, since I know I can do it now, I want to compete all-around, so who do I have to beat out?''

Berlin did exhibition routines on floor in the Bruins' first two meets, but by the third meet she was competing in the all-around and competing so well that Kondos Field kept her in the all-around for every meet the rest of the season, calling her their most consistent all-arounder. Berlin hit 50 of 52 routines that year, earned All-Pac-10 honors in the all-around and was voted the Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year. Her contributions were so vital that midway through the season Kondos Field decided to offer her a scholarship for the following year.

Expectations for Berlin were raised for 2007, and she began pre-season training on fire, learning all kinds of new skills. But by December, the pain in her leg re-emerged, and Berlin's training time diminished. In a sport in which repetition and practice is paramount, it would be understandable if she were unable to compete consistently. But the preternaturally upbeat Berlin has such a determined nature she makes the impossible seem possible.

'I never talk negative to myself,' she explained. 'If negative thoughts ever do come into my mind, I overload my mind with positive thoughts so that no negative thoughts can come in. I don't let myself think that I haven't been training for a week. My body's done it a thousand times. There's no reason if I take a couple of days off or a week off that my body shouldn't be able to go in the same place, so I just have to make myself believe that.'

Kondos Field is constantly amazed by what Berlin has accomplished. 'When you think about it, she only does gymnastics four times a month, maybe,' the Bruin head coach said. 'And she continues to get better. I was asking her about this on a trip, and she said she realized that her turns are so limited that she has to make each turn count. She is an interesting case study on the power of the mind.'

Still, the leg pain prevented Berlin from competing on floor exercise, her signature event, for the first month of the 2007 season, but she returned to the all-around on Feb. 10, and for four straight weeks, she improved upon her career-bests, peaking at a 39.425 in a dual meet win over previously undefeated Georgia.

Scoring that high while leading off on most of the events is a testament to Berlin's consistency, as well as her team-oriented attitude.

'I like being leadoff,' Berlin insists. 'There's not so much pressure. I like to have a solid score and solid routine to start off and get everyone excited. It gets us going on a good path, and I feel like I'm consistent enough to where I can be that rock.'

As a result of being the leadoff performer, Berlin's routines often get underscored. Which is why her 9.975 on uneven bars on Feb. 25 was so important for her. Not only was it a fraction shy of perfection, but it was her first-ever 9.9 score.

'Before the meet, we always go around and state our goals,' Berlin said. 'My goal for that meet was to get a 9.9 because I'd never gotten one before.'

Just before Berlin was slated to compete on the uneven bars, teammate Ashley Peckett scored a 9.9, setting Berlin up for a big score as well, as Berlin usually does for her teammates on the other three events.

'I just had one of my best routines ever, and I got off the bar and I was in tears. I was crying,' Berlin said with a slightly embarrassed giggle. 'It was awesome.'

While Berlin's high marks are valuable, especially in the leadoff position, it is her spirit, leadership skills and resilient attitude that make her an irreplaceable member of the Bruin squad.

'She is inspirational,' said teammate Tasha Schwikert. 'She does her job, she leads by example, she works hard. Everything about her says leader. She has so much determination. She always wants to win, and she always wants to do what she can for the team. Her mental toughness is just impeccable.'

Kondos Field uses a life-saving analogy to describe Berlin.

'We always talk about how, if you were on the Titanic, who would you want on your lifeboat,' she said. 'Ari is the first person I'd pick to be on my lifeboat because she's going to find a way to save the boat, not just herself. She would never in one moment say we're going to die. She'd find a way to save the boat. And that's how she's been in competition. We've gone into some meets where we've been the underdogs by far, and she's the one that says 'We are not losing this meet! Come on, guys, let's get it done!''

Those traits Schwikert and Kondos Field describe in Berlin are evident in the days prior to the NCAA Championships, her biggest competition to date. Although the coaching staff intends to sit Berlin on one or two events in the team prelims, one would be hard-pressed to completely count Berlin out in the all-around.

'I want to compete so badly. I will not be satisfied unless I do,' Berlin asserted. 'This is what we've been training for all year. I've gotten this far on my leg to stop now.'

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