Coming of Age

Jan. 28, 2009

STANFORD, Calif. - They left behind their families and friends, familiar landscapes and comfortable surroundings. In essence, they left familiarity for uncertainty.

For five Stanford freshmen, any concern for the unknown was also mixed with an underlying sense of trust. Each knew that something special lay ahead. And each trusted that the individuals they would come to call 'teammates' would be exactly that - teammates in competition and in life.

It's a peculiar thing, to leave behind so much that is good for only a vague promise of what can be better. But that's the risk Alyssa Brown, Catherine Nguyen, Nichole Pechanec, Jenny Peter and Alexandra Skoly took when they decided to come to Stanford.

Less than a month into their first collegiate season, the promises are beginning to be fulfilled as each explores her potential as a student and gymnast. And each is doing so in an environment that is at once demanding, yet nurturing. Challenging yet exhilarating.

They've learned that the academic demands are formidable, sleep is a luxury, and bikes a necessity. They've also learned that teammates are family, and that if a crisis hits at 3 a.m., at least one will be at their door within minutes.

So who are they?

Skoly, from East Greenwich, R.I., laments that her sharp East Coast accent is being softened by her California lifestyle. Her teams are the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox, and she considers it her right to let people know who she cheers for.

Peter is from Lincoln, Neb., a fact made clear by the Nebraska Cornhusker T-shirt she wears under her Stanford sweatshirt. Her upbringing was in many ways typical Middle America. She was the captain of the cheerleading team, a prom princess and class vice president. The girl who spun cartwheels after scoring goals in soccer quickly made an impression on coach Kristen Smyth with her enthusiasm and leadership.

Nguyen, from Plano, Texas, found her inspiration inside her own house. Her sister, Christine, who is older by two years, was a world-class gymnast. Catherine pretended to be Christine, now competing for North Carolina.

'I'd always just watch her,' said Catherine, who soon enough began to make her own mark in the sport.

Brown was one sprained ankle from competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was Canada's first alternate. The native of Oakville, Ontario, could be voted Stanford's Most Likely to Deliver a Forecheck. She played ice hockey for five years.

Pechanec, New Jersey born and bred, lived the classic life of an elite gymnast. The daughter of a Czechoslovakian national team member, Nicole has been a gymnast since age 3 and admits she was forced to grow up quickly. At 12, she was on her own, training out of state and flying home to New Jersey every other weekend.

At age 16, she joined the Czech Republic team and lived by herself for four months overseas, before traveling to European and world competitions.

'I've spent my whole life saying goodbye,' she said.

It seems ironic that in leaving home, Pechanec has finally found a home. Stanford has offered a stability she never had as an adolescent living out of a suitcase.

'Everything you did was more for yourself,' Nguyen said of the elite gymnastics life. 'Coming here, it's definitely a change. Before you decide to stay up late, you have to consider how the consequences may affect the team. You don't want to let the team down.'

Said Pechanec, 'In an international gymnastics meet, you don't know if you'll come out of it alive. Here, you get strength, energy and confidence from having your teammates cheering and supporting you.'

It's a simple hope for every college team: that strangers can be thrown together from far away and bond into a cohesive unit that will strengthen and empower each individual.

For Stanford's gymnastics class of 2012, hope has become reality.

David Kiefer - Stanford Athletics Media Relations



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