After Retiring Twice, Italy’s Sydney Saturnino Is Ready for a Fresh Start at Iowa State

Until this year, no Italian gymnast had ever competed in the NCAA. In 2022, following in the footsteps of Nebraska’s Clara Colombo and Martina Comin, Sydney Saturnino will become the third Italian to debut in a collegiate gymnastics meet as she recently signed with Iowa State and will join the team in the fall of 2021.

Saturnino’s journey to the NCAA began almost by accident in June 2020 when College Life Italia, an association that helps Italian athletes navigate the U.S. collegiate world, contacted her and asked if she was interested in a collegiate career.

The question came as a total surprise to Saturnino. Despite watching NCAA gymnastics meets online and looking up to Colombo at Nebraska, she had never pictured herself as a collegiate gymnast. “I never got interested in it because I wasn’t aware of the possibility of [studying in] America, [and I knew nothing of] colleges and scholarships,” Saturnino said.

But she added: “The moment I was told about it, I said, ‘I’m going to start doing gymnastics again, no ifs, no buts. I don’t care with whom or where, but I want to do [collegiate gymnastics].’”

Before then, Saturnino had already said goodbye to gymnastics twice. 

She became an elite in 2016 at age 14 when she moved from her home town of Ischia (near Naples) to Lissone (near Milan) to train at GAL Lissone, the gym that has produced world championship finalists Carlotta Ferlito and Elisabetta Preziosa.

The following year was Saturnino’s best season. She represented Italy at both the Jesolo Trophy and the FIT Challenge in Ghent, Belgium. There, she won the all around, her most important elite achievement. Because of injuries, however, Saturnino retired in 2018. 

In the summer of 2019, she returned to GAL Lissone to give the sport another chance, but her aspiration was short-lived. She decided to travel back home at the end of the year. “After this second time, I didn’t want to have anything to do with gymnastics anymore,” Saturnino said.

Gymnastics appeared to be a thing of the past until the prospect of a collegiate career prompted her to give the sport a third chance. “The choice [of joining the NCAA] is a breath of fresh air for me,” Saturnino said. “I take it as the beginning of a new life.”

She is excited about both the athletic and academic opportunities that U.S. universities offer, she added.

“Gymnastics is lived in a much more relaxed way in college [in the U.S.] than in Italy,” Saturnino said. “[Gymnasts] have much more fun, and there’s a much stronger team spirit. I love that.”

Additionally, in the United States Saturnino will be able to simultaneously pursue an academic and an athletic career, which is not an option in Italy. “That’s what makes me the happiest,” Saturnino said. She is planning to study physiotherapy at Iowa State. 

Saturnino began to train again in October and is now feeling really good about it. “Compared to last year, I’m feeling much better both physically and mentally,” she said. “This is because I’m not training with a big [elite] goal in mind, such as a European championship or other international competitions; I’m much more relaxed and carefree.”

That Saturnino signed with Iowa State only one month after resuming training is rather unorthodox. Yet recruiting coordinator Nilson Medeiros decided to trust her potential. 

Saturnino said she was in touch with eight different schools, and all of them wanted to see recent videos to understand her current level of gymnastics and where she would be in one year’s time. 

Medeiros’ point of view was different, though. “He watched the old videos [from 2017 and 2018] and said, ‘I can see your potential; we don’t mind if you arrive here and you’re not completely ready. We’ll prepare you,’” Saturnino said.

The positive feeling with the team eventually convinced Saturnino that Iowa State was the right school for her. “The more I entered the world of Iowa State the more I felt I was part of a family,” she said. “This is one thing I was looking for from the beginning: to feel part of a family, although one that I still don’t entirely know and that is thousands of kilometers away. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Iowa State coaches put her in contact with some current team members, as well as with her fellow gymnasts in the class of 2021. “We’ve already bonded,” Saturnino said.

Saturnino is currently back at GAL Lissone to prepare for the NCAA. She is training all four pieces but hopes to contribute to the team especially on bars and beam. Although she does not yet know which skills she will perform, she is certain of one thing: “I enjoy performing innovative and peculiar skills, and I’m sure that in college they’ll give me the opportunity to do it.”

Her coaches at GAL are supportive. “They’re preparing me for this alternative journey,” Saturnino said. “Because I don’t have the same goals as the other gymnasts training with me.”

She hopes, though, that other gymnasts will follow in her footsteps. “I’m trying to encourage the younger ones to consider [the NCAA] because I [already] know that it will be an awesome and unforgettable experience,” Saturnino said. “It’s a formative experience, which makes you look differently at all problems of life.” 

Her story, moreover, will serve as an inspiration. “Passion and the drive to do your best can lead you anywhere,” Saturnino said. 

“Despite the criticism and people’s negativity, if you want to overcome an obstacle, you can do it,” she added. “If your heart tells you to do something, you have to do it.”

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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