A Drive To Win: UCLA's Hopfner-Hibbs

by Patricia Lee

Some people dream about going to the Olympics. Fans want to go and watch. Athletes want to go and participate.

Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs achieved this dream at the age of eighteen, but she's not satisfied with that one experience. After representing Canada at the Olympics in 2008, she has since won a national championship with the UCLA gymnastics team, and her drive to win is as strong as ever.

Every goal must originate somewhere, and this student-athlete did not enter the gymnastics world because she dreamed of being an Olympian.

"I got a membership to a gymnastics club on my fourth birthday," said Hopfner-Hibbs, now a junior at UCLA. "It was recommended by a family friend because I had a lot of energy and I was getting into some trouble. I was a little troublemaker."

Though she did not start gymnastics on her own, she was never forced into doing anything she did not want to do.

 "I loved it right from the beginning," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "Both of my parents were and still are very supportive."

Because of gymnastics, Hopfner-Hibbs didn't have a typical childhood with regular play dates and Saturday morning cartoons. Since starting the sport, she has been on her path towards achieving gymnastics greatness. She began competing at around age six or seven, starting locally and eventually branching to the international stage.

She does not regret having a different childhood.

"I wouldn't trade any of it," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "I wouldn't have traveled to any of the places that I've been to if I hadn't done gymnastics and I wouldn't have met half of the people I met. I guess it balances out for me."

Hopfner-Hibbs's efforts paid off when she was sixteen when she won the bronze medal on the balance beam at the 2006 World Championship. This medal was the first medal ever won by a Canadian female gymnast at the World Championships.

Two years later, Hopfner-Hibbs competed in the Olympics.

"Unfortunately, I didn't have the best meet of my life," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "It was a memorable experience regardless. Just being in the open village and spending time with other athletes from Canada and from around the world was amazing. Everyone there was the best of the best in what they do."

She continues to have big goals, even after winning medals at the World Championships and participating in the Olympics. She aims to be the best in the NCAA.

The UCLA gymnastics team won the national championship last season, and Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs has had a great role on the team since her freshman year. She is an integral part of the team, already having won four times in the all-around and tying career records in floor and vault.

Hopfner-Hibbs has been dreaming of competing for the Bruins since she was young. UCLA was her dream school.

"When I was growing up, I thought that going to NCAA gymnastics meant going to UCLA," Hopfner-Hibbs said with a laugh. "I didn't even know there were different schools because in Canada we don't have that type of system, so UCLA was always the school I wanted to go to. When I realized that there were other schools, I didn't change my mind because I still wanted to come here."

Hopfner-Hibbs's gymnastics achievements paid off. She was recruited by UCLA as young as legally possible by NCAA eligibility rules, which was during her junior year of high school. Though this prevented her from receiving offers from other schools, she did not care. Her dream school offered her a spot on the team and at the school. She committed and signed before she came to UCLA on her official visit.

Since coming to UCLA, she has won a national championship and earned the Pac-10 Gymnast of the week honor a record-tying six times, and she still has a year of competition left.

Now that UCLA, which is on the quarter system, has finals, she and her team will have to balance both their studies and their gymnastics.

"Thankfully we don't have any classes next week and we just have practice," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "We can go in and get our gymnastics assignments done and then study all day long."

Hopfner-Hibbs and her gymnastics team will be spending their finals week and their school's spring break practicing and preparing for the championship season.

"During spring break, it's nice because we just have practice and we don't have to go to classes after," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "We have fun in the gym, and afterwards we can go lie by the pool or go to the beach. We still get to have a break; we just have to practice in between."

Balancing the pressure of finals and championship season is something unique to the NCAA gymnastics experience for Hopfner-Hibbs, who has years of experience in elite individual competitions all around the world.

"They're two different worlds," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "Elite gymnastics is just for you. You're doing it for yourself. Then you come to college and it's all about the team. You're just one of twenty-one girls with the same goals, all working towards the same thing. It's a totally different type of pressure."

Luckily for Hopfner-Hibbs, she is not alone. She has her team. She also has two fellow Canadian gymnasts on the UCLA team—freshman Sydney Sawa and junior Aisha Gerber. The three gymnasts have competed and trained with each other for a long time and they help each other in the gym. They also understand what it feels like being away from home.

"I miss Canada a lot," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "LA's been really cool. I like that we're really close to the beach and the people that I'm associated with at school and in the athletic department. But I do miss Canada. I miss the fact that my family is there the most."

Achieving dreams is not an easy road. Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs has made sacrifices in her childhood by dedicating her time to gymnastic practices and competitions. She has to be away from home and family in Canada in order for her to compete in the NCAA with UCLA. She has to find a way to balance her physiological sciences classes in school with high-pressure competitions.

However, she finds it all worth it.

"Gymnastics influenced my life in every single way possible," said Hopfner-Hibbs. "It teaches you so much. Everything you could possibly think of. Everything I have learned in life is from gymnastics."

With a bronze medal at the World Championships, the title of being an Olympian, a NCAA Gymnastics Champion, and a six-time Pac-10 Gymnast of the week already under her belt, it seems gymnastics many of Hopfner-Hibbs's dreams have already come true.

Who needs a fairy godmother to make dreams come true, when you have gymnastics?

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