Gymnasts make more than one adjustment

Making the move to Division I athletics was just the beginning for the pair.

Luke Middendorf

It’s enough of a challenge for incoming freshmen at the University to adapt to college life coming from the shelter of a high school atmosphere.

But for freshmen Yuri Nagai and Ana Balboa, the change to college life was the smoothest transition they went through this year.

Nagai and Balboa are two of the five freshmen on the Gophers women’s gymnastics team to make the switch to Division I athletics and college life this season. Except unlike the other freshmen on Minnesota’s squad, they have also been forced to adapt to life in America.

Considering the calm and collected looks on their faces, one could hardly expect that Nagai and Balboa would be freshmen, let alone international students.

But putting aside their peaceful demeanors and nearly fluent English accents, you will find that Nagai is a former member of the Japan Junior National gymnastics team, and Balboa is a 2005 all-around champion at the Mexican national championship.

“It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to go to a different country for your education, and you’re speaking a second language,” co-head coach Jim Stephenson said about Nagai and Balboa. “Americans live at a much faster pace, and both of these girls have done a great job so far at keeping up to speed.”

The Minnesota lifestyle

Naturally one of the biggest transitions for any out-of-state student that comes to Minnesota is the blistery winter weather, and that was definitely the case for these two gymnasts coming from Mexico and Japan.

Balboa, who perked up and smiled at the opportunity to talk about her first Minnesota winter, said, “I hadn’t seen snow until I traveled. It’s so different, I had to get used to it.”

Born in Japan and going to high school in Maryville, Tenn., Nagai agreed that having to be so bundled up for a simple walk to class has been challenging and often lonely now that most people don’t talk during their walks from building to building.

But more than anything, Nagai said that being away from a mother who lives in Tennessee and a father in Japan has been a tough transition.

“The biggest change for me would be living by myself and not with my parents,” Nagai said. “You have to do everything on your own.”

And as their teammates from Minnesota and surrounding states are able to go and visit their families on a regular basis, situations like having family far away have just brought these two gymnasts even closer together.

“We have the same problems at times, so we always have that in common,” Balboa said.

The other obvious difficulty for all international students, although hard to tell at first in these two women, is the language barrier – something that was more of a difficulty for Balboa than for Nagai.

Balboa, a Monterrey, Mexico, native – the same hometown as former Gophers All-American gymnast Judy Cavazos – is going through her first long-term experience in America this year, and she said that switching from speaking Spanish to English has been an interesting process.

“The language at first was hard,” she said. “Thinking in English and then speaking in English was a difficult change, but now I am more used to it. I did not learn much English in Mexico, but when I came here I was naturally forced to speak.”

For Nagai, the more fascinating language difference has been listening to the change from a Southern, Tennessee accent to a Northern, Minnesota one.

“In Tennessee they had a really weird accent,” Nagai said with a shy smile. “Here (in Minnesota) it’s much easier to understand and it’s clearer and slower.”

A change in competition

The changes for these two women were not only in cold weather and Minnesotan dialect, but also through a different style of gymnastics competition and structure.

Both Nagai and Balboa said that on international teams the competition is more on an individual level, which they said takes away the importance of teamwork and the feeling of accomplishing a big group goal together.

“For international competition, we are on a team but it is very individual,” Nagai said. “We didn’t even practice with our teams.”

Fantastic freshmen

Unlike many freshmen Div. I athletes, Nagai and Balboa have been a major factor in their team’s success this season.

Nagai holds No. 25 ranked Minnesota’s highest average score this season in the uneven bars with a 9.775, and has stepped up for injured gymnast Alexis Russell in the floor exercise.

While Balboa, who Stephenson said is still transitioning into America’s style of gymnastics, has been consistently improving and competing on the vault.

“There are very few freshmen that make an impact in any sport because they are going up against athletes that are much older and well-seasoned,” Stephenson said. “But I will say that Yuri has been one of our strongest performers on uneven bars. And Ana, who spent most of last year out with a back injury, has been a big help on the vault.”