When Mercedez Sanchez competed for the first time in Pauley Pavilion on Mar. 13 and celebrated her delayed senior night, it seemed as if the stars had finally aligned.
For Sanchez, 2020 was a year filled with difficulties, pain and a tragic personal loss.
In March, the NCAA season came to an abrupt end only a few days before she was set to compete for the first time for UCLA on her senior night, leaving her devastated.
Later that summer, she was set to start a new collegiate experience at San Jose State as a graduate student, when the team, like all California-based colleges, was unable to begin preseason training because of COVID-19 protocols.
They finally came together in October, but after only five weeks of training, tragedy struck. Sanchez’s little brother Liam, who was battling leukemia, passed away on Nov. 23. Sanchez left San Jose and went home, taking the time to grieve with her family.
During that painful time she wasn’t sure whether to even rejoin the Spartans at all, but in the end, she decided that it was best for her to go back. “It was always my dream to compete in college gymnastics, and I had such a great relationship with all the girls and all the coaches, even though it was only five weeks,” Sanchez said. “I also wanted to do it for my brother.”
Upon returning to San Jose, though, circumstances proved challenging once again. Sanchez had to quarantine, which she said, “is something that’s hard to do when you’re coming back from grieving and you have to be alone or just not do anything.”
She was eventually able to resume training, but after only two weeks she and a few other team members tested positive to COVID-19. Sanchez had to move into a hotel and isolate once again. “That was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, another thing is hitting us,’” Sanchez said. “We were trying to find a way to have a season and then we just kept getting knocked down.”
Sanchez was cleared to begin training again only in mid-February, a week before the Spartans’ first meet of the season against Stanford on Feb. 27. Despite the little training time, she competed on bars and beam and posted solid scores.
Debuting in the NCAA was “a dream come true,” she said. “It was crazy because of all the adversity that we had faced before. So going into it, it was like, it’s going to be whatever you make it. I was just super grateful, super excited to do the best that I could do and everything that was in my control.”
After four years at UCLA and with one more year of eligibility left, Sanchez began to think about transferring in December 2019 when she started applying for grad schools. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘What if I could still do gymnastics? And how cool would that be to go to a new team and still do gymnastics and be a grad student?’” she said. “So once the season got canceled, I went into the transfer portal and started reaching out to different schools and looking at what my options were.”
Instrumental in her decision to go to San Jose State was her close relationship with Alexa Solomon, then a freshman in San Jose and a former club-mate of Sanchez’ at Matrix Gymnastics. “I asked her about it, and she told me how great it was,” Sanchez said. “[Plus,] it was in California close to my family, and that was something really awesome.”
San Jose State head coach Joanne Bowers also turned to Solomon to find out more about Sanchez and said, “Everything was glowing.” Then she talked to UCLA head coach Chris Waller and got the same positive feedback. “[Thanks to] all of the things he and Lex said and everything we got from Mercedez too in all our talks, we knew we were getting a mature young woman that had been with a very successful team,” Bowers said.
“Some people may say that she didn’t get to compete a lot,” she added, referring to the fact that Sanchez only performed a few exhibition routines on bars and beam during her career as a Bruin. “But you gain valuable experience being around that team for four years, so [she brings] maturity and leadership. And I also think she’s an amazing gymnast with beautiful artistry and great performance quality—we need that, too.”
The Spartans’ need for leadership this year was the reason why Bowers was interested in welcoming a grad transfer to the team, which was something she had never done before. “I’ve just never done it because I’m a true believer in leadership on your team and on earning your way up,” she said. “But we were actually looking for more leadership and maturity because our season had ended abruptly, the seniors left and graduated, and we have no seniors on our team this year. We knew everybody was young, we were bringing in six new freshmen, and we just felt like that was an area where we could use help in maturity and leadership.”
Solomon herself recommended Sanchez to Bowers because she knew that her friend could lead the team by example. “I was excited to have Mercedez come to San Jose because I knew how much she could bring to the team,” she said. “We were able to push each other every time we trained together at Matrix. She brings such a positive attitude every day and gives her all.”
From the very first meeting they had on Zoom in August, Sanchez’ commitment to the program and to helping her younger teammates won her the team’s favor and support. “I think Mercedez’s maturity and personality really helped because she immediately immersed herself [in the team], not pushing in any way,” Bowers said. “She immediately reached out to everybody, saying, ‘I’m here for you, I want a great experience, I want to finish gymnastics on a good note too, what can we all do?’”
Sanchez’ experience at UCLA was especially useful in helping her new teammates improve the performance quality of their routines, particularly on beam and floor. “Coming from UCLA, she has a lot of experience not only with competing but also with handling nerves and having fun out on the floor,” Solomon said. “She is so creative and inspires everyone that she gets to know.”
In turn, given her experience and “big personality,” Sanchez was quick to gain that leadership role that Bowers was looking for when she recruited her. “At San Jose, being that everyone is so young, a lot of the girls look up to me more and come to me for advice,” Sanchez said. “That’s a really cool thing to have and to [be able to] step up and take that role.”
“There’s just been so many things she’s brought to the table to help us in a hard year; she’s been a godsend for us,” Bowers said. “We’re giving her second life in terms of being able to continue her career, but she’s really added a jolt to our team in a lot of positive ways, so it’s been such a great marriage.”
The love and respect that both the UCLA and the San Jose State teams have for Sanchez became evident on the Bruins’ senior night in Pauley Pavilion.
Celebrating Sanchez’ senior night at UCLA was initially Bowers’ idea. “I’d been talking about this with Chris for a month,” she said. “I was going to honor her in our own home meet, but I thought it was kind of weird, as she was not graduating, she’s doing her masters; so could she do it at UCLA on their senior night? Chris started working on it with them, and it all just kind of came together in such a perfect way.”
That day at UCLA, Sanchez fulfilled two dreams at once. She got to compete in Pauley for the first time, and she had the senior night that was previously taken away when the 2020 season was canceled. “It was definitely surreal. It didn’t even hit me until after the meet or even the next day,” she said. “Going into it, I was just trying to stay calm, cool and collected, but afterwards I was like, ‘What are the odds that we even had that competition and that it was senior night—that’s crazy.’”
Sanchez was delighted to celebrate the night with both Kyla Ross, in the class of 2020, and senior Nia Dennis, with whom she is especially close. And she was touched by the support that the two teams showed her during her routines.
Having both teams on the competition floor at once, moreover, was especially significant to Sanchez as they both supported her during her brother’s illness and after his passing. “It was really awesome to do my routines and have both the team that supported me through my brother being sick with cancer and the team that has gotten me through it and has been there for me every day,” Sanchez said. “It was an amazing amount of support from both teams, and it was just so cool to land my dismounts and have a roar of both San Jose and UCLA.”
When her brother passed away, Sanchez was overwhelmed by the amount of support that she received from her old family and her new one. “Every day someone was reaching out to me from UCLA or from San Jose or even from other teams at San Jose,” she said.
A San Jose water polo player who lives close to her family and was sent home because of the pandemic was in touch with her almost daily even though they barely knew each other. “The Spartan community is really close and really there for each other, and it’s been really amazing,” she added.
When Sanchez decided to go back to San Jose and compete for the Spartans after her brother’s passing, she was committed to doing it for him and her family. Before every competition routine, she held a necklace that contains her brother’s ashes, then handed it to assistant coach James Williams, who held it as she competed. “To have a piece of him there with me and to finally compete for him was something that I was so grateful for, and it felt so special to me,” she said.
The tragedy, she added, “changed [my] view of the world, as not every day is guaranteed. It takes a little bit of the pressure off to know that I’m going to do this for me, that it’s whatever is in your control and that all you can do is to have fun. It’s just gymnastics.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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