By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT and Patricia Duffy

Margzetta Frazier was fully committed to retiring from elite gymnastics just weeks ago. This weekend, she’ll represent UCLA at nationals with Chris Waller and Jordyn Wieber as her coaches.

Feature Photo by Grace Chiu

Margzetta “Marz” Frazier has had her sights set on the NCAA for years. When it came time for her to decide on where her NCAA career would be spent, UCLA was a great option, a welcoming home with great coaches in a fun environment, not to mention its tangible success as a program. She was confident that no matter where her elite journey took her, she’d be heading westward.

Flash forward to the first week of August this year. With a slight feeling of trepidation, ultimately overshadowed by great excitement, Frazier donned her Bruins team gear for the first time. The month leading to nationals for most athletes is about increasing numbers, routine preparedness and a decreased social calendar to make room for additional (and much-needed) rest and recovery, but not for Frazier. For the past two weeks, she’s spent hours walking, taking campus tours, going through orientation, moving and becoming acclimated to the rolling hills of Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, Frazier represented Team USA in her first international meet: the Birmingham World Cup. She earned the assignment by qualifying with the top score at a national team camp at LSU. In Birmingham, she captured the silver in the all-around with a 53.932, proving she can challenge for medals on the world stage.

“The meet was so confidence-building for me. It proved to me that, after all these years of consistent training and discipline, every day of pushing really did matter,” Frazier said.

In June, Frazier fell and suffered a broken sternum. She took off for her double pike beam dismount and her foot slipped, resulting in an incomplete rotation and a devastating fall. The injury altered her nationals prep timeline significantly.

“I knew something wasn’t right, but I decided to pull hard and go for it, and then I hit the ground really hard and knew it was bad,” Frazier explained. “The back of my neck was tight, and my chest, right in the middle, was just in pain.”

After being diagnosed with a fractured sternum, muscle strains and other subsequent back and neck irritation from the trauma, she needed time off to heal.

“I thought that was a sign for me to retire. I had a meeting with Donna Straus (Parkette’s owner and Frazier’s coach) and we talked it over,” Frazier said. “I said that I don’t think my body can take it anymore, and I wanted to go to college. She was disappointed, but I was, too. I cried and was just so emotional. I wrote her this twelve page note about how much I appreciated everything she did for me. I knew she wanted to take me through to Worlds, so that was just so hard. We spent four years together. She made me who I am today, and you can’t say thanks enough for that.”

She still went to the gym, but everything hurt. She couldn’t do handstands, and she could barely run. Even punching hurt. Daily tasks like lifting her arms over her head to do her hair was intolerable.

“Every time I tried something, the next day would just be worse, but I couldn’t just sit around… my mind wouldn’t let me,” Frazier said.

During her two months off, she began to pack and plan her trek to California.

UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, assistant coaches Chris Waller and Randy Lane, and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber did what they’ve done many times before; they took a hard working, motivated elite under their wings.

“We have found the most success by helping support an emotionally healthy, really well-rounded person academically, socially and athletically,” Waller said. “When each part of a student-athletes’ life is in balance, she tends to thrive… One of the biggest challenges is getting freshman to train as efficiently as possible. Cutting down training time to 18-20 hours per week can be really challenging for elite gymnasts. The upside for the elites is that since they’ve put in the hours, so they can get away with fewer repetitions. Limiting repetitions and strategically planning impact is vital but not easy. Our program is in a constant state of evolution where we evaluate what works and doesn’t work and make changes.”

Word traveled to the new Women’s High Performance Team Coordinator, Tom Forster, about Frazier’s elite retirement plans. A phone call came soon thereafter.

“Tom called and said, ‘Hi Marz. I heard about your plan to retire, but we really need some seniors for 2018-2019.’  I said, ‘Tom, I already retired.’ Forster said, ‘Well, I talked to your college coaches already, and they are on board.’”

Frazier’s next question was one of respect… “Do the Straus’ and other Parkettes coaches know? ”

“I thought all along that there were two completely separate tracks–either defer and stay elite or go to college and retire from elite. I knew Vanessa Zamarripa had done it [with UCLA] before. My Mom sat me down and said, ‘Zett, this is a sign. The sport is not done with you, and you are not done with the sport. You don’t want to leave this with any regrets.’”

In men’s gymnastics, often the best athletes are training in parallel with their NCAA career, and the top coaches are often also head coaches at various university programs. In women’s gymnastics, an entirely different “system” is in place. Zamarripa straddled the two worlds in 2010, and Mohini Bhardwaj trained hard enough during her college years to return to elite and become an Olympic silver medalist.

“The elite training with Vanessa started a year before her first elite meet so getting the skills was pretty fun,” Waller said. “We were able to use some of her elite skills in UCLA meets which helped UCLA and her elite ambitions. The challenge was trying to find some down time–after 14 college meets in three and a half months, elite qualifiers and the start of the elite season, her body needed a serious rest but it was hard to find a break.”

So there she was, two weeks from nationals with a decision to make…

Frazier decided to give it a go and push for nationals in Boston.

“I did my first beam routine with the dismount the day before I left to come here [to Boston] and did my first floor routine yesterday. [It’s the] same routine that I competed at World Cup,” Frazier said after podium training on Wednesday.

Her coaches understand her position and are letting her and her body’s health be the guide.

“My routines are exactly the same. It is just a matter of me getting my confidence back. Chris reminds me that I have done this before, and I can do this all. Jordyn knows where I am. She knows how I feel. She has been through injury and comeback, too. Chris and Jordyn are here with me and will take me through to hopefully the path to Worlds. They are such a great team together, complement each other and make me feel confident and secure.”

Frazier is focused this week on the task at hand, but she still has to study for classes that she is taking, reminding her that she is, in fact, a student-athlete.

“The biggest challenge for Margzetta will be school,” Waller explained. “We are working hard to come up with a plan that will allow her to take the time required for PanAms or Worlds.”

“I don’t even feel like I am on the other side of the country when I am there. It is such a welcoming family. Everyone is connecting and bonding over past struggles and hard times, and we all lift each other up to higher than we were and would be on our own. That’s what gymnastics truly needs right now, and we are setting that standard.”

Frazier’s favorite part about UCLA?

“I am so excited to have a team, lots of girls, by my side at UCLA. The support that the UCLA students and fellow athletes give meet day is something I cannot wait to be a part of!”

When Frazier talks about her passion for the sport and her difficult journey to Boston, it’s apparent that the fire is still very much alive in her–not necessarily just to win but to leave elite, whenever that may be, having put it all on the table.

For now, she’s not quite ready to close the door on elite just yet, and we can’t wait to watch her soar.