Gymnasts practice their skills almost year-round, but recently, Ute junior Daria Bijak found that practicing her nervousness during those long hours in the gym has been a big help.
"I make myself nervous in practice so I kind of practice the nervousness and then I'm not as nervous in the meet anymore. I think that helps," she said. She is coming off the two best collegiate all-around scores of her career, 39.525 in the regular-season finale at BYU March 20 and 39.55 in the NCAA West Regional at Seattle April 4.
Bijak and her Ute teammates — also coming off their two highest scores of the season, 197.80 at BYU and 197.675 in the regional — hope the trends continue Thursday and hopefully Friday at the 2009 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at Nebraska.
Thursday, Utah must finish among the top three in its evening session in the team preliminaries round to advance to Friday's Super Six national championships.
Bijak, a 2008 Olympian and a two-time member of Germany's World Championships team, is a three-time All-American as well, finishing in the top eight (plus ties) in NCAA finals in all-around and bars last year and on bars as a freshman.
Because she trained and competed for nearly two years straight to represent the Utes in the NCAA and Germany in the Olympics, coach Greg Marsden brought her along slowly this season. It was so slow, she thought Friday that she'd only gone all-around two or three times this season and was surprised to look at the stats and find she's actually been an all-arounder in six of the last eight meets.
The last two meets, she not only had her best all-around scores, but she set or tied career highs in vault (9.90) and floor (9.925) at BYU and on beam (9.925) at the regional. She finally cracked the 9.90 ceiling that had somewhat eluded her because, as Marsden presumes, judges simply don't understand the outstanding difficulty she does because her skills are unlike what many American gymnasts perform. Bijak also said she's done better the last two meets, partly because she's learned to live with her own nerves. "If I practice that, I'm nervous every turn I take, then it's fine. I know I can do my routines, and then I'm not like, shaky; then I can do everything," she said.
"I'm happy to see better scores, but I also see why," she said. "Like at the last meet, that was my career high in the all-around, but I know that's because I stuck all my landings." I stuck my vault, I stuck my landing on bars, I stuck my landing on beam. So I know where it's coming from."
"I think she's learning to relax and let it happen more, which has I think always been the issue with Daria," said Marsden. "She's a very talented athlete and has a lot of experience. The one thing that's been tough for her to overcome is to not try to be perfect."
He said she hasn't always performed like she trains "because she tries too hard, so we're trying to encourage her to relax and not put so much pressure on herself and just try to get in the rhythm of the routine and let it happen."
"It's a lot how I think about my gymnastics and how I feel, and right now, I'm where I want to be," she added, though she admits she still has to "have a good day" to do her best, and that's something she hasn't learned to completely control.
GETTING BETTER: Senior Nina Kim, the nation's No. 6-ranked all-arounder, was feeling better Monday after an 11-day battle with influenza that kept her out of the regional. She was able to go through Friday's intra-squad meet but wasn't 100 percent, and she still had a hoarse voice Monday but was clearly better. Also, sophomore Gael Mackie, who missed Friday's intra-squad while coming down with influenza, was positively perky Monday, feeling much better. Kim said doctors caught Mackie's illness early and were able to get her some medicine that helped.
NO PODIUM: Nebraska's Bob Devaney Center, like Utah's Huntsman Center, doesn't have the room, so the championships will be held on a regular floor rather than on a raised podium, as the NCAA prefers. UCLA was the first to have a podium for the NCAAs in 2004, and recent championships at Auburn and Georgia had them while the finals at Utah and Oregon State did not.