In July, Ashley Carter, Claire Dean, Taralyn Nguyen and Anna Roberts took to Instagram to announce almost simultaneously their commitment to Stanford for the 2023 season.
The shared announcement, which was Dean’s idea, was intended to reveal the bond of friendship, trust and respect that the four commits already have. “It shows that we work together, we communicate, we have this bond and we’re ready for Stanford—we are already a unit,” Dean said. “And I thought it was cute.”
Such an early bond is unusual for a class of recruits, as most incoming gymnasts get to know each other only once they set foot on campus their freshman year. Friendship, however, was an important factor for the four gymnasts’ journey to Stanford from the very beginning.
For one thing, three of them—Carter, Dean and Nguyen—have known each other for a very long time, as they’re all from California and compete in Region 1. Roberts, a Region 2 athlete from Washington, is the only newcomer to the group, but she gets along with the others so well that it’s impossible to detect that she’s only known her three future teammates for a few months. When she met the others at nationals last May, she was a little nervous, but they “were super nice and super welcoming,” Roberts said. Their friendship started after the competition as they got to know each other while hanging out at the beach.
The four gymnasts’ early interest in Stanford, moreover, was in part stimulated by some of their friends, who are current members of the team. Roberts, for example, trains at the same gym where senior Madison Brunette and sophomore Amanda Zeng went and has been in touch with them ever since they left the club. Carter is good friends with fifth-year Lauren Navarro while Dean is close with incoming freshman Brenna Neault. “Since she’s our age but one year above us in school, she’s been a little mentor and kind of like, ‘Here’s what you do and here’s how you do it,’—just little tips here and there,” Dean said of Neault.
Most importantly, what brought the four recruits together was Stanford’s recruiting process, which differs from the other colleges insofar as student-athletes need to be accepted by the school before they can verbally commit to the team. “The other students at my school are not applying [to college] until this year, so at times I felt like I was the only one going through this,” Nguyen said. “But being able to talk to them and have other people going through the process with you was really helpful, and that really helped develop this bond we already have.”
“We have more confidence in each other than we have in ourselves sometimes, and being able to share it with each other and boost each other up helps us gain that confidence that we need,” Dean added. “It’s a really nice dynamic that we have—I already know that they have my back, I already know that they want what is best for me.”
Although applying to one of the leading universities in the world was far from easy, the four recruits concur that it was also incredibly rewarding, insofar as the application made them feel that they were selected for who they are as people and students, not only for their gymnastics ability. “Because we had to go through this application process, I feel like I deserve to be at this school. It’s not just that I got it because I’m an athlete—I got it and I’m an athlete,” Dean said.
“At the end of the day, Stanford wants you to push yourself to be your best,” Carter added. “Our application process wasn’t just about gymnastics and school, we discussed everything in our lives. If we did our personal best and if we were at our personal best, we were good.”
“Overall, the reason why Stanford has us do this is that they want to get to know you as a person and not just as an athlete or data and test scores and all that,” Nguyen concluded. “It really shows Stanford and their philosophy. They really care about their students and what kind of people they’re bringing into the school.”
The whole recruiting process, moreover, helped them develop a strong bond of trust and mutual respect with Stanford head coach Tabitha Yim, who was a relentless source of encouragement, reassurance and guidance during the months the four gymnasts spent on the application. “Everything Tabitha said would happen, happened exactly how she said it would. She was so supportive throughout the entire process, she made it easy to follow, it was all smooth with her,” Nguyen said. “[Thanks to the recruiting process], I developed a deeper amount of trust with Tabitha, and that was really rewarding as well because we put all our eggs in this basket, and she does the same back. The trust level there is really deep.”
One thing that stood out to them about Yim was her transparency. “Tabitha is a very honest person, and she will tell you exactly what she’s thinking, where you stand and all of this,” Dean said. “Some coaches do play a little cat and mouse with you, and she won’t. She will be very clear about what she needs from you and how to proceed forward, so for me as stressful as it may have been, I felt the confidence because she had confidence in me.”
“Tabitha was very truthful with all of us,” Roberts added. “That made me feel really comfortable when I was getting pressured by other schools.”
The four recruits also appreciated that Yim and assistant coaches Alexandra Pintchouk, Vince Smurro and Chris Swircek always treated them as people before gymnasts. “I bonded with [Yim] from the beginning, from when we first talked,” Nguyen said. “We had up to two hours of conversation, and it wasn’t just about recruiting. She would ask about other things, and I feel that we got to know each other past just recruiting and gymnastics. I really think that speaks for her and how she’ll be as a coach.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why Stanford stood out,” Dean added. “All the coaches, when they talk to us, they will touch on gymnastics, but you’re being recruited as a person. You’re being recruited for who you are, what type of attitude, what kind of personality, not just what events are you going to fill. … It makes you feel wanted in a sense.”
There’s no doubt, nevertheless, that the four gymnasts are very talented athletes and will help Stanford climb up the rankings and even challenge for an NCAA title while they are in college. All four recruits are 4- or 5-star gymnasts, they’re all regional champions and they all won at least one medal at this year’s level 10 nationals.
Roberts is a 2021 state, regional and national all around champion and boasts career highs of 9.950 on vault and 9.900 on bars. Her level of consistency, as well as her scores, were higher than ever this year thanks to her recovered physical health. “From 2018 all the way to the end of 2019 I was hurt and I wasn’t really able to train,” she said. “Once I started training consistently, my skills started to improve and my confidence grew a lot. … Having that confidence going into competitions really helped over the past two years.”
Dean is also a 2021 regional all around champion, as well as a national silver medalist on bars. She boasts career highs of 9.800 on bars and 9.825 on beam, and at nationals this year she had the rare privilege of having a skill named after her on beam: a switch leap half to arabesque. Dean started training the skill in 2019 on floor, taking inspiration from figure skaters, then moved it to the beam after seeing LSU’s Olivia Dunne performing it there. In the end, her goal became to compete it at nationals and have it named after her in the code of points. “I thought that was one of the coolest things to have that mark of legacy there. I was definitely a bit nervous,” she said, remembering her performance at nationals. “I was determined no matter what. I was just going to keep trying until I got it. Fortunately, I got it on the second [attempt], and I could see my coach jumping up and down on the side.”
When, after a couple of weeks, she received confirmation that the skill had officially been named after her, “it didn’t seem real,” she said. “How can I have a skill named after me? I’m not anything special, I’m not one of those Olympians. [But I had] that realization that, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”
While Dean is strong on bars and beam, Nguyen is a powerhouse on vault and floor. She’s only one in a handful of level 10 gymnasts to perform a Yurchenko double twist on vault and competes two E passes—a double layout and a full-in—on floor. This year, she won the vault title at nationals and even scored a 10.0 on the same event at regionals. “Vault is not an easy event on your body, so I think that my push this year was less is more in training,” she said. “Coming up with a new schedule for my vaults and following that mindset, I was able to make this happen.”
She knows in college she’ll likely downgrade some of her skills, so she’s preparing to enjoy her unique amount of difficulty in her final year of club. The icing on the cake would be to compete an Amanar on vault in a home meet. “If everything stays healthy and goes smoothly, it can come out,” she said. It would be a historic moment, as the number of level 10 gymnasts to ever compete that skill can be counted on one hand.
Finally, Carter is a well-balanced all arounder whose gymnastics bloomed this year. She won the all around and beam titles at regionals with two career highs, as well as a silver medal on beam at nationals. Beam was her final event there, and “finishing strong was really great.” Plus, once the competition was over, she received a heart-warming phone call. “I got a call from Tabitha, [who said], ‘That was a great routine,’” Carter said. “It was super exciting.”
The four gymnasts love watching each other compete and are excited to show the high level of gymnastics they’ll bring to Stanford. “I’m so happy that I have such a close relationship with them, to soon learn with them and get tips and tricks on certain skills,” Carter said. “It’s great watching them—they’re super fun. I’m excited we’re all together.”
“They’re outstanding. They blow me away every time,” Nguyen added. “I’m so excited for what the future of this team holds—our class can really help step it up. I’m so excited to see it.”
The four recruits make no secret of their ambitions at Stanford. Their ultimate goal is to win the Cardinal’s first ever NCAA national team title. “This class [has] a very good mixture of our events; they complement each other really well and personality-wise as well, so I think it will really help towards achieving that goal,” Nguyen said.
How do they plan to achieve it? Through hard work and determination. “We’re greedy. We’re willing to put in the work—to do the hard work—and we’re willing to work together,” Dean said. “And even when it gets hard, even when we are No. 1, we’re willing to do what it takes to continue growing.”
To prepare for Stanford, the four recruits have already started thinking about which skills they will compete in college and are even discussing routine compositions with Yim. Roberts would like to continue to perform her Yurchenko 1.5 on vault and her full-twisting double back on floor while Carter will likely keep her difficult three-element series on beam and perform three front tumbling passes on floor, including a front double twist.
Nguyen will be expected to continue to compete some of her difficult skills, including a 10.0 start value vault, as well as, she hopes, her double layout on floor, which is her favorite element. Dean, on her part, is training some elite-level combinations on bars but can already compete a flawless Ray to Pak salto connection, which will likely make its debut in college. “I love the Ray to Pak, it’s one of those few skills that really makes me feel like a gymnast—that mix of nerve-racking and ‘Oh my God, I’m flying,’” she said. On beam, she is currently working on three different routines in order to have several options according to how she’s feeling on a certain day. Merit for this style of training goes to Yim. “Tabitha definitely works with you, as most coaches do, but I think she does it really well,” Dean said. “She plays to your strengths and [makes you do] what she knows you can hit because that’s what college is all about.”
As they prepare for their NCAA journey at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the four gymnasts are the embodiment of the mantra that hard work pays off. Their accomplishments, they hope, will serve as an example to the younger generations of gymnasts looking up to them. “I would say to the younger kids that this sport is really hard, but it’s very rewarding. You have to push through, and if you really love it, it’s really worth it,” Roberts said.
“When I look back at my younger self, I can tell the younger girls in my gym to always believe in themselves because it’s such a hard thing to do in the sport,” Carter added. “[There’s] fear of not being good enough. As I matured, I learned that I’m good enough, I need to trust myself, I need to believe that I can do all of this. And it took me a long time to realize that—a very long time.”
Their application to Stanford and in particular their relationship with Yim also boosted their confidence in and out of the gym. “In one of our conversations Tabitha would say, ‘The people at Stanford take their work seriously, they take their sport seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously,’” Nguyen said. “I can relate to that. Gymnastics is already such a tough sport, mentally and physically. Taking time, seeing the positive side and having fun with the sport is really important.”
“It sounds kind of sad but the thing that really stood out with Tabitha is that in one of the conversations we had, she said, ‘Hey Claire, I’m really proud of you,’” Dean said. “I hadn’t heard that a lot in the past, and those simple words made me feel special. [They] made me realize how much I had done.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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