SALT LAKE CITY — Math's loss was a big gain for Ute gymnastics.
Daria Bijak might have stayed home in Germany had she been able to figure out what math could have done for her.
"I was going to go (to college) in Cologne, study math. I love math, and I'm really good at it, but I guess I didn't really know what to do with it because I didn't want to be a teacher," said Bijak.
So — after having trained at Utah for a week in 2003 with her German national team as it prepared for the World Gymnastics Championships in Anaheim, Calif., and having kept in touch with Ute student manager Cameron Linford, now director of gymnastics operations — Bijak came to Utah in 2007.
"When I finished (high) school in Germany, I did not have a whole lot of plans with what I wanted to do, and this just looked like it could be a great experience. I did not know what to expect. I just went for it," said Bijak.
Bijak had supplemented her regular school classes by reading books and watching movies in English so she could communicate with friends she'd made in international gymnastics. And that made school in America easier and may have helped put her on a career path.
She is now a senior who will compete one final time in the Huntsman Center on Saturday starting at 6 p.m. in the NCAA North Central Regional that is the gateway to the NCAA championships April 22-24 at Florida.
Bijak, a 2008 Olympian and a member of two German World Championships teams, has tended to be at her best in NCAA postseason meets. In her final year, she's been more at peace with her gymnastics than ever before.
"As we started this season, or even in preseason, I felt like I'm ready for this last year. As we started competing, and I started doing better, it just feels good, and it makes me happy where I am right now," said Bijak. She set her career all-around high of 39.575 on March 12 and followed it up with back-to-back 39.525s at Florida on March 19 and against BYU to close the regular season on March 26.
In past postseasons, Bijak has twice recorded the highest score of anyone in the Utes' six-team preliminary sessions — on floor as a junior and on bars as a freshman — to help Utah qualify for the Super Six team championships. And she was all-around runner-up with a then-career-best 39.55 at the 2009 NCAA West Regional to help Utah qualify for nationals.
Tenth-ranked Utah is seeded second in Saturday's regional, behind fourth-ranked and top regional seed Florida, so Bijak's best will be needed again for Utah to place in the top two Saturday and advance to nationals.
That inner calm will help. That's just the right term for it, she said.
"I think I'm the most confident and the happiest I've been with what I've been doing, with my gymnastics," Bijak said. "Since it's coming to an end, there's nothing that I regret doing or that I haven't done. I'm in the best shape I can be. I'm doing the skills that I want to do. There's really nothing where I feel, 'Oh, I wish I would have done this, I wish I could do this.' I just do what I want to do now, and it's working out."
Bijak seems mentally ready for the end of her career and beginning of the rest of her life, even though she is as passionate as ever about gymnastics.
"I just love to be out there. I love to swing around and try new things," she said.
She relishes practice. Some days she doesn't feel well but has a good practice and surprises herself, and, "it really makes me happy, and it's cool. You can't predict it. Sometimes you feel good, and it doesn't work out, and you're like, 'Why?' And the other day you feel bad, and it's great, and you're like, 'Whoa, just go with it.'
"That's what I love about it," Bijak said, growing more enthusiastic as she speaks.
"I do think that she still very much enjoys the sport," said co-coach Megan Marsden. "I think that she loves what it feels like to do her gymnastics. I think that's remarkable at her age and with the number of years she's put in and the number of years she's put in at the highest level."
When gymnastics is done, Bijak sees no problem shifting her focus.
"I have so many interests, and I think if I find something that I develop passion for, the same way I have for gymnastics, I'll be successful in anything I choose to do," she said. "If I believe in it, and I really love it, then I can do anything I want."
Bijak, 24, has another year of school, and she's hoping her film studies major leads to something better than what she could see in math.
"I kind of started with that (passion) with my film projects that I do for my classes," she said.
"I'm looking into internships with production studios, so anything in the film or movie business, I would love that," she said. "And I'm minoring in business because I'm really interested in marketing and all that stuff — so I hope that it all goes together somehow."
She doesn't know whether she can or will stay in the U.S. after graduation.
"Even if I got a job here, it's so hard to get a visa, so it's not just making the choice, 'Oh, I want to stay here,' or, 'I want to go home.' "
Her boyfriend, Sasch Kiehne, a senior on the Weber State tennis team, is from Renningen, Germany. He has started toward his master's and will also be in Utah another year. His parents recently moved to Detroit, "so it's hard to plan. We'll just finish school and go from there. We can both stay here, or we can both go home," said Bijak.
NCAA North Central Regional
Saturday, 6 p.m.
Jon M. Huntsman Center
Other teams competing: Florida, Auburn, Boise State, Denver, Washington