Cassandra Whitcomb (USA) was one of the top elite gymnasts of the 2009-12 quadrennium, and she went on to compete for UCLA in NCAA gymnastics. Unfortunately, Whitcomb was forced to retire from gymnastics in 2012 due to an injury. In this interview, she discusses her current life, elite journey, training with Mary Lee Tracy, and much more.

Inside Gymnastics: What have you been up to lately?
Cassandra Whitcomb: In the months since I graduated UCLA, I’ve welcomed my first niece into the family, found a new home in Riverside, California, and started a new job coaching young gymnasts from pre-team to Level 9. Currently, I’m studying for the GRE to enter graduate school for my Master’s Degree in Atmospheric Science or Meteorology! Recently, I underwent a back surgery I’ve needed for a while and the recovery has so far been very smooth.

Inside: What was it like to be a team manager at UCLA?
Cassandra: My transition to manager followed my medical retirement and it was a difficult but welcoming change. I appreciate the experience I received being on the coaching side of things for the team. Although unable to compete anymore, being part of the Bruin team and having those relationships were special in their own way. I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon!

Inside: Can you describe your elite journey in general?
Cassandra: I’ll have to give the short version, haha. Well, it began at 7 years old, when I was invited to join the TOPs Program. There, they helped me hone the skills necessary to reach elite and eventually earn my spot on the US National Team for five straight years (2006-2010). Looking back, [two] of the highlights were the Final World Selection Camps, which gave me the critical feedback necessary to improve myself. While I had my share of injuries and difficult decisions to make, it was my time during elite that gave me the physical and mental resiliency to make those hard choices. I chose to join UCLA and step down from elite. The experience was eye-opening and humbling, a journey that helped me grow and learn and find my strengths and weaknesses.

Inside: Do you have any funny/interesting stories from your elite days?
Cassandra: Well, there is one but it’s pretty embarrassing. It was 2006, I was 13 and on my very first international trip, in Belgium. I was eager to make a good first impression and wanted to have everything just right. Knowing my luck, that wouldn’t be the case. The first night into the trip, just when I thought things were going to be alright, I found out I forgot to pack the National Team warm-up! I panicked, thinking all my coaches and teammates would be so angry with me. Nearly in tears, I had to confess to my coach that I had forgotten my essential tracksuit. My coach, both sympathetic and a little amused, calmed me down and worked out a plan. We contacted my parents, who managed to send it overnight—from 7,000 miles away! Luckily, I got to walk out and wear it proudly with the team. I may have forgotten my warm-up, but I certainly didn’t forget my routine. I took from that whole fiasco a valuable experience. Since then, I’ve earned a reputation among my family and friends for never, ever packing a suitcase without making a list and checking it twice (sometimes three times).

Inside: What was it like to train with Mary Lee Tracy?
Cassandra: Mary Lee Tracy was nothing short of amazing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had several coaches, all of whom I respect and admire. However, Mary Lee was a lot more than a coach. She looked out for me and the other gymnasts, going out of her way to make sure we were healthy and confident and could cope under pressure. She planned birthday parties, team dinners, and often got creative in lesson plans. Many of us saw her as our gym mom. Don’t get me wrong, she was demanding as a coach. Mary Lee pushed me into a whole new level of ability, unrelenting in her goal to bring out the absolute best in her gymnasts. I look back on those experiences as a unique challenge, but it helped shape my personality and gave me a determination that I apply to other areas of my life as well. Mary Lee Tracy was a coach, a mentor, and a friend. I couldn’t be more thankful.

Inside: Which did you prefer—competing elite or NCAA?
Cassandra: This is difficult to answer. I’ve had plenty of experience in both and they each had their own highlights and lowlights that make it a challenge to compare. I will say that elite competitions offered a lot of perks, including world travel and meeting foreign competitors. I also consider them to be more individualized, as it was much easier for me to tune out the crowd at an elite competition. When it came to NCAA, I was introduced to a whole new dimension to my gymnastics perspective. The fostering of a team mentality became paramount, and they taught me to use the energy of the room as an advantage, rather than a distraction. I find it so hard to pick partially because I love the thrill of competition. I think most gymnasts do. We don’t train for months just to be shy on the competition floor. In both NCAA and elite, those moments are precious, unlike anything else in the world.

Inside: What are some of your favorite gymnastics memories?
Cassandra: As I mentioned previously, the thrill of competition is important to me. Many favorite memories were the moments of victory following an impeccably executed routine that I had exhausted myself over months. For example, when I won uneven bars at the Level 9 Eastern Nationals. Fewer things are more rewarding than seeing hard work validated. Yet, outside of the competition floor, I have very fond recollections of big milestones in my gymnastics career. I remember the first time I wore the USA team warm-up. Putting it on showed me how far I had come, and also assured me that it wasn’t all some incredible dream.

I want to say that I’m not all about the competition, though. When I was in UCLA, I was unable to travel to our first PAC-12 Championship due to injury. Although personally disappointed, I knew I had a team to support. So I organized friends and family of the team to welcome them back at the airport, complete with pictures and flowers to congratulate the team victory. I won’t ever forget the look of joy on their faces. I believe some of my strongest memories are not how I felt, but how I made someone else feel.

Inside: What was your favorite skill to compete?
Cassandra: I have a few favorite skills that I loved to compete. The Gienger on bars, the back 2 ½ twist to punch front layout full twist on floor, and the front stalder on bars. Each of these were highly difficult, but I loved them all the more for that. But if I had to choose a favorite, I think it would be my stalder hecht release move on bars.

Inside: Would you consider coaching young gymnasts one day?
Cassandra: I am actually coaching gymnastics and I have been coaching for a while. I have coached everything from preschool, recreational, pre-team to Level 10, and excel bronze to excel platinum. I love coaching and being able to pass on my wisdom of gymnastics to the next generations. I am trying to pursue a career in my degree; however, I could see myself continuing to mold young gymnastics in the future.

Inside: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cassandra: I just wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions. I would love to stay involved in the gymnastics world, seeing as it has been a major aspect of my life. Thank you for allowing me to do so.

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Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com