Denver standout gymnast Alexis Vasquez perfectly OK with not being perfect

Alexis Vasquez’s score read 9.925.

Once, that would have been enough to deflate the University of Denver gymnast. But on Saturday, she declared it perfect in a sport where nothing beats a 10.

“You can still be ‘perfect’ without being perfect, by being the best that you can be,” said the Denver sophomore who was named Big 12 specialist of the week in five of the past eight weeks.

Last fall, three-quarters of a point from 10 might have cost her a night’s sleep. She would have chastised herself, thinking, “Why be average when you can be great?”

Truth is, Vasquez was never average. Not in school. Not in taekwondo as a youngster, and certainly not in gymnastics. The All-American finished fourth nationally on balance beam as a freshman.

Sixteen months after she almost abandoned sports and school, Vasquez is refreshingly blunt in talking about how she has lived with mental illness, a revelation she first shared in an open letter posted on the Denver athletic department website in December.

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The response was overwhelming. Her Instagram account received nearly 700 comments on the original post, and messages continue to pour in from around the country.

“I did not expect a big reaction,” said Vasquez, an integral piece of the sixth-ranked Pioneers squad that travels to top-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN3). “A lot of people I didn’t know, other gymnasts, messaged me telling me they were going through the exact same thing. And that was so cool, knowing that I could help someone else in real time.”

Like many young gymnasts, Vasquez grew up imagining herself an Olympian. Watching Shawn Johnson win beam gold in 2008 inspired her to strive beyond her local gym in Arcadia, California. At 11, she wanted to train where Johnson had — at Chow’s Gymnastics in Iowa.

“Alexis has always wanted to be the best,” said her mother, Cathy Fujimi. “She sent in her videotape and got accepted.”

The family moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, where in addition to open space, Vasquez was introduced to an intensified level of training where every turn mattered and the push to make the national team was assumed.

“The hours were actually shorter than I had been training before, but we got so much more done because we were so much more efficient,” Vasquez said. “It was a different level of excellence.”

Vasquez, right, arrives at the gym early now, not to train but to be part of the chatter with her Pioneers teammates. Jamie Schwaberow/Clarkson Creative Photography

Minus the daily soreness, Vasquez enjoyed her first two years there, even though meaningful friendships eluded her.

“I never knew what a best friend was,” she said.

As an elite gymnast, she couldn’t relate to peers in school who “lollygagged.”

“If you would have asked me my goal, I would have responded, ‘National team,’ because that’s what my coaches told me,” Vasquez said. “I didn’t think for myself because, at the time, there was no need to. You just do what you’re told. Like a robot.”

After qualifying for the U.S. national team, Vasquez felt guilt over joy. Physically drained from severe knee and ankle injuries, she was also mentally drained largely from the expectations she put on herself. She feared she had disappointed her parents amid their sacrifices when it became clear she didn’t want the added stress of training at the highest level.

Fujimi made it easy by understanding.

“When you see your child in front of you, broken at 15 years old, you’re done,” she said. “We were done. I didn’t care what anyone had to say. We left.”

Vasquez returned to California and worked to get healthy again after a pair of surgeries. She was excited when Denver — a team that’s been on the rise nationally — offered her a scholarship. Only she wasn’t ready for what that meant, even with her mother moving there to provide support. “I wanted to be there just in case instead of being a two-hour flight away,” Fujimi said.

This time Vasquez’s anxiety escalated into obsessive-compulsive behavior coupled with depression.

Vasquez wasn’t prepared for a regimen of classes mixed with the requirements placed on freshman athletes, including morning lifts, meetings, afternoon training and homework on hold until evening.

Entering college as an engineering major, she said she hated it after one class. “It was a major guidance counselors picked for me because I was good at math and science,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to major in something you really liked?'”

Vasquez prioritized A’s over 10s. After every class, she was hard on herself if she didn’t remember the lecture precisely. She reviewed the material daily. Vasquez didn’t just jot down a to-do list for the next day. She wrote multiple ones, obsessing about getting ahead, a vicious circle that left her always feeling behind.

“Usually for people it’s like homework for the next day. Mine was homework for the next day and the next week. If tomorrow was Friday, I’d be doing next Friday’s homework,” she said. “I always had to stay a week ahead. If I wasn’t, I’d think something bad was going to happen.”

The Denver sophomore was named Big 12 specialist of the week in five of the past eight weeks. Brittany Evans/DU Athletics

Gymnastics became a bigger burden when the team began traveling. “Getting good grades was No. 1,” she said. “I’d be in the gym thinking, ‘I need to study right now.'”

She tried to force her mind to relax by walking. She couldn’t. Even the walks themselves were regimented exercises. “I’d say, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!’ ” she said. Don’t go over, she’d tell herself; don’t take precious time away from schoolwork.

It was during one of those walks on a night last fall when she texted her mother.

“Come here.”

Struggling to breathe when she opened the car door, Vasquez couldn’t speak. Instead she sobbed, telling her mother how much she was letting everyone down. Just as she wanted to abandon the national team, Vasquez said she was ready to leave Denver.

“No one is going to understand,” she said.

Fujimi picked up her daughter’s cellphone, found the contact for Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart and pushed dial.

The coach, in her 22nd season at Denver, immediately went into a proactive mode of connecting Vasquez with the resources she needed. “I was happy she called,” Kutcher-Rinehart said. “I was proud of her for being honest and courageous and brave and showing that vulnerability. Mental health is really tough. It’s a journey. It’s a process.”

Vasquez struggled to buy in initially. How could talk therapy help? How could medication matter? Or opening herself up to a social life? When Kutcher-Rinehart urged her one night to trade homework for dinner with teammates, Vasquez panicked. “I was only four days ahead with my homework, not a week yet,” she said.

“Be social tonight,” the coach reiterated.

The healing process involved realizing that perfection is overrated. Nobody was waiting for her to mess up. “When I got to the point where I actually believed that, that’s when things started to change for me for the better,” said Vasquez, who is now majoring in psychology and media studies.

After some prodding, Vasquez joined her teammates for game night in the lobby of a hotel on a road trip. She started a weekly ritual of tagging with teammate Mia Sundstrom to Illegal Pete’s, a Boulder pub where Mission-style burritos are the headliner. Vasquez actually arrives at the gym early now, not to train but to be part of the chatter with the Pioneers. She’s learned it’s OK to binge-watch TV — “Once Upon a Time” is her latest favorite. She isn’t upset about having a 3.88 grade-point average. And Sundstrom helps reinforce the lesson of striving for excellence, not perfection.

It is a mentality Vasquez finally embraces. It is why, after making a slight misstep on beam a week ago, she didn’t allow it to spoil her night or the rest of the routine.

“You can still score high even with a mistake,” she said. “These past few weekends I have made some mistakes, and it’s fine. I keep my mind thinking everything’s perfect, and it’s fine. You know what? It’s totally fine.”

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