Inside Gymnastics Exclusive – Alabama star Luisa Blanco Announces Plans to Compete for Colombia

Inside Gymnastics Exclusive – Alabama star Luisa Blanco Announces Plans to Compete for Colombia

By Christy Sandmaier with Ashlee Buhler contributing

On April 28, 16-time NCAA All-American and Alabama star Luisa Blanco announced she’d be taking a fifth year for the Crimson Tide. A decision that collectively delighted both ‘Bama and NCAA fans around the country. Now, the 2021 NCAA champion on beam and 2023 runner-up on uneven bars (alongside Utah’s Grace McCallum and Maile O’Keefe, Florida’s Trinity Thomas and Michigan’s Abby Heiskell) is taking her gymnastics and life dreams to yet another new level, revealing today exclusively to Inside Gymnastics her plans to compete for Colombia.

“I’m fulfilling that dream that I had when I was a little girl and I’m going to try to give it my last shot in this last fifth year that I wasn’t even supposed to have and do college, pursue a Master’s and go and compete for Colombia. That’s the ultimate goal,” Blanco told us. 

With both of her parents native to Colombia, Blanco said she always felt close ties to her culture but never quite knew how to express it. Now she hopes to have the chance to represent Colombia with pride at the sport’s highest level. It’s a dream she has always had, but was discouraged from chasing. As she embarks on this new journey, she hopes to inspire young girls to know it’s never too late to chase their dreams. 

“You don’t see a lot of girls that look like me doing gymnastics,” Blanco said. “And now that it’s growing and I see Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, it really is empowering! I want to continue that, ultimately … “It’s not something that’s so unreachable or impossible to do. There’s somebody that’s doing it, so [I just want to] be there in any way I can. If that’s the Olympics, that would be amazing … If it’s just competing at a Pan American Games or just a huge international stage, either way, my heart is just so whole.” 

In order to pursue the Elite path in addition to her fifth and final season at Alabama, Blanco enlisted the help of Midwest Gymnastics Coach Jess Graba, who coached Suni Lee to Olympic All-Around gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Blanco will spend her summer training in Minnesota. 

Speaking with Graba Thursday morning, he said he’s excited to get to know Blanco better and see where this new dream can take her. 

“I’m actually kind of excited just to get to know her a little better,” Graba said. “She just got here yesterday. I’m really happy to see these girls enjoying the sport to the point where they have other options. They want to take the next step and see what’s possible. I think that says something about the girls, but it also says something, hopefully, about the sport. I think the sport is evolving and being a little bit more forgiving on the athletes. Obviously, the rules are hard, but the equipment, the training methods – everything’s just been more forgiving and more rewarding. I’m happy to see that and hopefully we can capitalize and give her a really good senior season, but then also give her a good chance at a dream.”

“When this whole idea came up, I was shocked because I was like, ‘There’s no way that Jess wants to train me,’” Blanco said. “Just the fact that he was so supportive and willing, I could see through him how much USA Gymnastics has changed and is continuing to evolve … From the first phone call, it just felt right, and it felt like it was going to be a great fit.” 

Blanco will be training twice a day, of course being mindful of how the increase in training will affect her body. 

“My practice is definitely different now, taking it little by little so that I’m not, you know, breaking myself down,” Blanco said. “’I’m obviously being way smarter about this than I was when I was younger.”

Graba will work closely in tandem with Alabama head coach Ashley Priess Johnston and the Crimson Tide coaching staff throughout the process this summer and during the NCAA season to navigate the best possible training plan for Blanco as she embraces her fifth year as an NCAA student-athlete while simultaneously training as an Elite. 

“We’ve already met,” Graba said. “Ashley and I and my wife (Midwest coach Alison Lim), we’ve been going back and forth with some of her skills and some of the stuff when she was still down there training. Ashley’s a Brevet-level judge, so it’s a little easier. And we did this when Ashley was at Auburn with Suni, so she has a little bit of experience with some of our training. So, it actually is kind of an easy transition. I think personally, I have a great working relationship with Ashley and Gina (Quinlan). I’ve known Gina for years, and I’m looking forward to just going back and forth. They’ll maybe come up and see a couple of practices, and then maybe we go down during the season. I’m looking forward to a collaboration. We did that with Auburn, and it was really fun, so I’m looking forward to seeing if we can get something like that here too, for Luisa.”

Up first for Blanco will be the Colombian Championships in Cúcuta in July. After that, she’ll take a look at the list of possibilities and decide what’s next. 

“That’s the big one right now,” she said. “From there, we can talk about the route to Pan Am Games, and then hopefully in the next following year, there will be World Cup selection qualifications for the Olympics.”

Aside from heading back to Tuscaloosa to attend her graduation ceremony in August, Blanco will remain in Minnesota for the summer to train. Whether she will do All-Around or become a specialist for her final collegiate season remains to be determined. 

“We’re rolling with the punches and I’m letting God take the wheel because that’s all I can do at this point,” Blanco said. “I have nothing but gratitude. Again, this fifth year thing, it wasn’t even possible a couple of years ago.”

As Blanco looks ahead, one thing beyond the competition is always certain – that is the unwavering support of her family along with her resolve to inspire the next generation of athletes to know anything is possible.

“My family, they drive me in anything I do,” she said. “They sacrifice so much for me to even get to college. I’m a first generation Latin woman, and that’s probably my biggest accomplishment. It’s not the trophies, it’s not the rings, it’s not the medals. It’s just the fact that I’m making a difference and the fact that so many people told me I couldn’t. And I’m doing it and I’m living it. And I have other people who believe in me too. So it goes beyond just what I do on the competition floor.”

No matter what the future holds, Blanco is sure to inspire the next generation to be true to themselves, to never let anyone put limits on a career and to truly keep their dreams alive. 

“Don’t let anyone confine you to a box,” Blanco said. “I’ve learned that throughout the last couple of months. I’m like, ‘Am I only a college gymnast? Am I only this? Am I only that?’ And it’s also not letting your own thoughts [take over] because you become so comfortable in the space you’re in. Don’t stay in that box; get uncomfortable, make that leap, go for it – because you never want to look back and think, ‘What if?’” 

Look for more on Blanco’s exciting new journey coming soon to and in an upcoming issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine! Subscribe here!

Photo credits: Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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Pacific Reign Rising

New Gym, New Confidence – Joscelyn Roberson

From Tokyo to Salt Lake City – Grace McCallum

New fire, new focus for Yul Moldauer

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