Sydney Barros Is Back with a Dream Reimagined

Sydney Barros Is Back with a Dream Reimagined

Four years ago Sydney Barros could have never imagined this moment. And she wouldn’t change a thing. Following a successful outing at the recent 2023 Pan American Championships where she qualified to the 2023 World Championships for Puerto Rico, Barros is now looking ahead to a trip to Antwerp in September, possibly Paris in 2024, and then on to Westwood as a UCLA Bruin where she’ll no doubt be a key member of the best floor party in the business.

But it wasn’t an easy road getting here.

In early 2019, Barros helped Team USA (Kayla DiCello, Skye Blakely and alternate Konnor McClain) win bronze at the inaugural Junior World Championships in Győr, Hungary, where she also placed fifth in the All-Around and on vault. At the 2019 U.S. Championships, Barros continued to peak as a junior, placing second on floor, third on bars and fifth in the All-Around and was looking ahead to a promising career as a senior Elite with an Olympic dream on the horizon in 2024.

After those Championships, I remember chatting with Barros on the floor of the Sprint Center in Kansas City where her excitement, drive and optimism for the future was apparent when asked about her upcoming goals. As was her humbleness. Hitting on all cylinders, everything was going according to plan until what seemed like a straightforward road started to take more twists and turns than Barros could have ever expected.

Following a pandemic and the Olympic postponement in 2020, Barros was now eligible to try for Tokyo, and made her senior debut at the 2021 Winter Cup. Shortly thereafter, she left Texas Dreams to train at World Champions Centre under coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi and in June 2021, she placed 18th in the All-Around at the U.S. Championships, just missing the opportunity to qualify for Olympic Trials. At the 2022 Winter Cup she placed ninth All-Around and was looking to build back up on the Elite scene when an untimely ACL injury requiring surgery derailed the plan. Call it character-building or call it bad luck and timing, Barros’ momentum once again came to a halt as she ultimately wondered what the future held and what her next step should be. It was, without question, the hardest time of her life, she said, and Barros decided to return home to heal and return to Texas Dreams under coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette, where she could stay close to her family to train. And reimagine her Olympic dream. 

“After my injury,” she said, “I was just seeing where I wanted to take my career in terms of, ‘Do I want to go the college route because I graduate this year or do I want to go farther down my Elite path and see where that takes me, whether it’s for Team USA or just finishing out this year, or if it’s competing for Puerto Rico?’” 

She officially signed with the Bruins in November (‘24) and started looking ahead to what the opportunities to compete for Puerto Rico were. Barros’ father, who is Puerto Rican, contacted the head coach and Federation to see what was possible, and in January, Barros was officially named to the Puerto Rican team.

“It was such a surreal experience because I really didn’t take that into account until literally last year that I could even do that,” Barros said. “So I thought that was really exciting, and it opened up a whole new box of opportunities for me that I didn’t know I wanted to do, or could do. So I feel like that was the biggest thing. I am just super excited about it.”

Fast forward to Pan Ams in May, Barros said it still hasn’t sunk in that she’s qualified for her first World Championships.

“You know, it didn’t even sink in when I actually made it in the first place because I remember we were completely done with the competition and they were checking where I was in terms of placement to see if I needed to stay for awards and stuff,” Barros said. “And Kim was like, ‘Hey, you got eighth, you made it to Worlds!’ I totally forgot! Not that I didn’t forget that was the goal, but I totally forgot in the moment I was even trying to make it to Worlds in the first place because I was so focused on making the routines that I had to do. But when she said that, I was like, ‘I actually did that!'”

With Barros’ belief in herself intact and her family alongside her every step of the way, she’s ready to show everyone exactly who she is, what she can do and inspire a new generation of gymnasts in Puerto Rico. She was as gracious as always when we spoke, but this time, there was a noticeable peace and confidence as well. 

Here’s Sydney in-depth, in her own words on her journey, how amazing she feels being part of a team again, and what this new dream means to her.

So first, congratulations! You’re going to Worlds! How does it feel?

Oh my gosh, it feels amazing! It’s been such a long and tiring journey, especially after what a year it’s been for me after ACL surgery and everything. Coming back from that was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I’m glad I’m able to actually come back and actually be able to do gymnastics and get back to where I almost was before. It just feels great to finally just be able to do the sport again and do it to the highest level I can. Going to Worlds is one of the biggest goals I’ve had, and to be able to achieve that, of making it there, I’m so grateful for everything!

Does it in any way feel like the pressure is off now and you can just focus on Worlds and just be happy training with that goal checked?

In a way, yes. That was a huge check off my bucket list. Having that weight lifted off my shoulders, I feel so much better going into this summer training, but I have a competition in El Salvador in about two and a half weeks, so I’m getting ready to train for that. It’s a huge deal for the Caribbean and for Puerto Rico, too. So I’m excited to represent Puerto Rico in that too!

What led to your decision to compete for Puerto Rico? And, in your specific situation, take us through the process.

The first time I thought about it or the first time Puerto Rico was even brought into the question – I remember mentioning it in 2019, how that would be super cool and how they were looking at me just to check on where I was in terms of, ‘Hey, if this was presented to you, would you want to do it?’ I didn’t pay much mind to it at first because I was totally set on going for Team USA because I was kind of at my peak at that point for my junior career. So that’s just where my headspace was back then. 

It’s my dad who’s Puerto Rican. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico. So having dual citizenship allows me to be able to compete for them in the first place. It all just came down to him contacting the head coach and the president of the Federation and having conversations back and forth of what that would entail for me and how the season would go. In January, they officially named me to the team. It was a lot of paperwork and a lot of sending things back and forth! They pretty much just named me to the team based on who I was and just based on my previous accomplishments. I was super excited to be named to the team!

The whole team is amazing. The staff is amazing, the whole Federation in general. I’m just super excited to see where that takes me in the future.

How was it competing with your new team at Pan Am Championships? 

It was great to be part of a team again, especially competing for a different country. It brought back that feeling of being part of something, you know what I mean? It was just great to feel that, especially with the group of girls. I’m getting to know them more and more and they trust me, I trust them. We all have great gymnastics to put out there. You’re creating that team chemistry, and I feel like we’re going to do great things going forward this year. The competition was just super fun. Everybody was super positive and everybody was cheering on everyone. Making the Team Final was, I feel like, the biggest thing as a team that we were like, ‘Wow, we really did this together!’ I didn’t realize at the time, but that was apparently their first time going to a Team Final in that competition.

I was super happy to be a part of that. Just for that whole experience of doing that for Puerto Rico, it just made me feel like this is where I belong.

A little bit of history there! How often will you train with the National Team and how are you balancing your training plan?

So I train completely in the States with Kim at Texas Dreams. Whenever it’s time for competition, we will pretty much just fly to it’s usually like Miami, we’ll fly to Miami and meet up with the Puerto Rican team there, and then we’ll fly to wherever we’re going.

You noted you felt like you were hitting your peak as a junior, and I very well remember talking to you and Kim at U.S. Championships in 2019 and how excited you were. Then COVID happened, injuries and gym switches. As much as you’re comfortable, talk a little bit more about your journey, your decision to leave Texas Dreams for a little while, going to WCC and then going back…

At that time when I had left Texas Dreams, I still had a great relationship with Kim. We still have a great relationship to this day. There was no bad blood in terms of me switching from Texas Dreams to WCC, and that was just based on all personal things. It wasn’t really regarding Kim and the situation at Texas Dreams. I just felt like I needed something different.

Moving to WCC, it was a great experience. I had fun with Laurent and Cecile and the whole team, and it was just an experience – something different than Texas Dreams, a different environment, different everything. Especially training with Simone (Biles) and the whole team, it was great just to get a different perspective on things. At the time that my injury came around, I was getting ready for Italy selection camp for Jesolo, and I was actually doing really well until my ACL happened. It was a freak accident. It was something so out of the blue. When that happened, we just decided, ‘Hey, this is going to be a long recovery, so why not just move back with family?’ Because it was just me and my mom that moved down to Houston, and my dad and my brother stayed up in the house in Dallas. So we were just like, ‘Let’s just move back with family, get everything situated, get surgery, have fun with the family’ –  I guess as much as possible within the recovery process – just so everybody’s together. It made sense because everything is up there. My therapy, my surgeon, everything. And then we decided to stay. 

What was it like being in the gym with Simone while you were at WCC?

It was great. I learned a lot from her in terms of trusting your gymnastics and trusting yourself. And gymnastics is not all of you. It’s not who you are. You have more to you than just gymnastics, which definitely helped me relax, in a sense, and trust myself more.

Could you have even pictured in 2019 where you’d be sitting right now and what you’ve achieved?

Not at all. I mean, this is so different from what I would have thought in 2019 [about] where I would be right now, but I wouldn’t change anything because the opportunities that I have now are so different from what I was thinking in 2019. I feel like it’s just a different set of opportunities that can lead me to places I never thought I could be. I’m just really excited for what is coming next.

Have you had time to think about what your goals are specifically for Antwerp and thinking ahead to 2024?

I’m so excited for Worlds! That’s such a big thing. Just making it there is just so surreal. I’m trying to wrap my head around it. But specific goals for Belgium, I think definitely upgrading my routines right now because the ones that I competed at Pan Ams are kind of the base level of finally competing all four events now pretty strongly. So probably adding more releases on bars, on floor, adding some more upgraded tumbling passes. We’ll see about vault and where that goes. And beam is feeling pretty solid right now, so probably just adding maybe some more connections, maybe some more leaps. Paris 2024 is the goal. And that’s mainly the reason why I decided to switch to team Puerto Rico, because I knew I could fulfill my dream of going to the Olympics with them.

There are so many athletes now that are trendsetters, competing with dual citizenship. How do you think you’re inspiring a new generation of athletes to see what’s possible – to realize that the traditional path isn’t so traditional anymore?

I do think about that, and especially in Puerto Rico, gymnastics is not a huge thing. I feel like coming to Puerto Rico and doing well in Pan Ams has already put such a light on gymnastics within Puerto Rico, and I just love being able to represent my culture, my background, and everything that I stand for. So I feel like that’s a huge thing that affects me and affects Puerto Rico, too. 

Who are some people in your own career that you’ve looked up to and really follow their careers or somebody who’s given you really amazing advice over time?

I’d say definitely Laurie Hernandez is one of my biggest idols, if not my biggest idol. Especially since she’s Puerto Rican, too, so I always saw her as like, ‘Wow, I want to be like her! She kind of looks like me.’ She’s definitely been my biggest idol. I’ve always looked up to her. We kind of have similarities in terms of floor routines, too. I feel like I got some of my flair and my confidence from her.  I remember in 2019, too, she went and put one of my medals on me when I was at the podium, and that was one of the most unforgettable moments ever. I was like, ‘This is almost a dream come true!’

Beyond the goal for Paris, then you’ve got UCLA!. Tell us about your decision to attend UCLA and what it was about that team spoke to you most.

I just love UCLA, and when I committed, I committed at the time when Miss Val was there. And so going through all these coaching changes, it was a little bit difficult. But I’m so glad now that we have Janelle McDonald as our head coach, and she seems like the greatest person. She’s like the sweetest person ever. And the coaching staff that we have now just seems super strong and the team just seems really unified, and I can’t wait to be a part of that.

So the last question that I always like to ask, if you were writing a letter to your younger self, what would you say?

I’d say trust the process. Trust the process. Things are going to get better. And trust yourself. Believe in yourself. Because I remember I had a lot of self doubt when I was younger, and I feel like now I’m breaking out of my shell and becoming more confident in what I do. And that comes with experience, too. But as little kids, you don’t tend to go for things as much. I feel like I would tell myself to trust myself and trust the process.

I’m just so excited that this Puerto Rican opportunity presented itself, and I’m so glad that I’m on this path now, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me, where the rest of this year takes me. This is such a different opportunity I’m so thankful for, and I’m so glad to finally be able to experience the whole thing and do this for my culture.

Photo credits: Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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