Upon graduating high school, international gymnasts are faced with a big dilemma: whether to continue doing the sport they love, in the hope of making the national team, or to retire, focus on their studies and prepare for the rest of their lives.
Italy’s Clara Colombo and Martina Comin were confronted with that difficult choice when they were nearing high school graduation in 2019 and 2020, respectively—until they found Nebraska and Nebraska found them.
“When I was in my final year of high school, I started thinking about what I wanted to do the following year,” Colombo explained. “When you go to university in Italy, it’s hard to continue to do sport at a high level, so that was my fear. I didn’t want to quit gymnastics for school, but I also wanted to give importance to college.”
As the first Italian gymnast to ever compete in the NCAA, Colombo paved her own way to collegiate gymnastics. Her journey to Lincoln began when she got in touch with an Italian friend who was then playing NCAA tennis in Ohio and who put Colombo in touch with the recruiting company that supervised her recruiting process, Star International. Although the company had no experience recruiting gymnasts, it decided to take up the challenge and sent off emails to various NCAA coaches on Colombo’s behalf. Two of them visited her in Italy—one of them was Heather Brink, Nebraska’s head coach.
“When my coach came to visit, I didn’t really know what I was looking for because it was a new thing for me—I didn’t have information on how to look for this and that,” Colombo said. “I simply wanted that opportunity, and I didn’t have preconceived ideas about what I wanted. … Then obviously when I met [Heather], I immediately felt good around her.”
Brink herself wasn’t planning to recruit in Italy, but in 2019 she was looking for a gymnast capable of filling some lineup holes on bars and beam and found in Colombo the perfect candidate. “It just happened that the email came through, she filled some of the holes that we specifically needed filled on our team and then it began an entire conversation,” Brink explained. “Of course Clara had quite a bit of international experience, which is a whole different level of dealing with the pressure and the nerves…so I think that added to her strengths, and I felt she’d be able to manage competing at a high level in the NCAA.”
Her experience with Colombo and her smooth transition into the NCAA were such that the following year Brink had no hesitation when it came to recruiting Comin, although the entire process had to be conducted via Zoom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Because I’d already gone through the experience with Clara, I knew their culture, their upbringing and the values that I think Italy supports—what they are about. I didn’t have to question the person I was getting,” Brink said. “Sometimes through a recruiting process, you’re like, ‘Is this the truth or am I getting just bits and pieces of the truth?’ But with Martina and even Clara, through that whole experience, just who they are as people and the values that they bring—this genuine loving and completely committed to the process values that they have—really helped solidify the thought that they’d be a good fit for our program.”
Comin, on her part, started getting interested in the NCAA only gradually. She first heard about collegiate gymnastics from a teammate at her gym, whose father was American, but until the end she had doubts about her chances of being recruited by a big program. “Clara for me was a VIP—she competed with the national team, everybody knew her, she won national titles,” she explained. “I qualified to a few vault and floor finals, but no one ever cared about me in Italy so I wasn’t hoping for it. I knew about Nebraska because of Clara, but I didn’t get my hopes high.”
Brink, however, thought otherwise. In 2020 she was looking for someone who could help the team on vault and floor, and Comin was the perfect fit. “I didn’t choose [Nebraska], but I would have never asked for anything at this level,” Comin said of her decision to sign with the Huskers. “They offered me something above my expectations. I didn’t even think, ‘I do it or I don’t do it.’ I’d already chosen.”
The transition from club to college—and from Italy to the United States—wasn’t easy, especially for groundbreaker Colombo. “The largest concern for any international student-athlete is how they will transition to living in the U.S.,” Brink said. “U.S. student-athletes—they get to go home maybe for weekends if they live close by or Thanksgiving or Christmas break; when you’re an international student-athlete specifically from Europe, you can’t go home for a five-day break because it takes you two days [to travel]. So there’s always a different challenge that as staff we try to look out for.”
Language differences proved to be the hardest obstacle. While studying in English was less difficult than she thought it would be, understanding and being understood by others was a real challenge for Colombo. “Especially at the beginning, I had a tendency not to speak,” she said. “I’m not a shy person, but I realized that as a result of the language barrier I’d become much shier than I normally am.”
As time progressed, things improved, and Comin’s arrival the following year was a game changer for the two Italians’ confidence in Lincoln. “[Clara] was shy in her first year while I’m an extrovert, and since we’re together, we’ve both opened up,” Comin explained. “There’s no fear of saying, ‘In Italy we do it like this,’ because it’s two of us saying and showing it.”
Everyone “hates us” for always saying that “in Italy we do things better,” Colombo and Comin joked, but Brink has a real appreciation for the cultural traits the two Italians have brought over from their home country. “The piece that I think has been really valuable for our team is their ability to genuinely love, include and accept. They just have this ability to make everybody feel valuable, they genuinely care for them, they reach out to them,” Brink explained. “It’s just who they are as people. … They just love very deeply and very widely; they just accept everyone—and I think that’s a very valuable thing on a team.”
Another aspect of Italian culture that the two gymnasts brought to the U.S. is, according to Brink, the importance they attribute to family bonds. “Family’s very important to them, and they bring that sense of family with them,” she said. “This has to be a family—ultimately our unit, our team, we operate as family, and I think that’s important to them, they bring that identity with them.”
Finally, Brink believes that a quintessentially Italian joy of life is apparent in the way Colombo and Comin perform their gymnastics, especially in their dance on floor. “If you watch their gymnastics, their performance value is just different,” she said. “That love pours out of them as they’re performing their gymnastics, and I think that’s a piece of who they are. Maybe the NCAA gave them the platform to showcase that, but I don’t think the NCAA created that. I think that’s just who they are.”
Colombo and Comin, in turn, have come to learn and appreciate aspects of U.S. collegiate culture that have made them reflect on the different approaches to school and gymnastics in the United States and in Italy.
Colombo is especially appreciative of the value that universities in the United States attribute to sport. “I love the sports culture of universities. I think it’s a really cool thing and something that’s missing in Italy,” she said. “In Italy, you’re either on the national team or you’re nobody. And there are so many athletes who have the same level of gymnastics as Martina and me…who could be doing something with it. There are so many opportunities for athletes here who could come here, play their sport, study in English and have an experience abroad. Plus, we have fun. It’s a different experience. It opens your mind. It’s a shame that all this information is missing.”
“Here we work for the University of Nebraska, and it’s a great opportunity—the things that we have here don’t exist anywhere else,” Colombo added. “In Italy there’s no way that you get everything paid just because you do sports. So for me this is an absurd opportunity.”
For Comin, being taken seriously for being a capable athlete and an equally capable student was a new feeling entirely. “In Italian academia, [professors] are very old [mentally],” she said. “People decide that if someone is committed to sports, automatically they’re either stupid and don’t study or they don’t have time to study.”
Instead, “doing sports here is considered as something more. You do sports and you study—congratulations,” Colombo elaborated.
Given that NCAA gymnastics is a team sport, moreover, Colombo and Comin believe that it also helps you develop interpersonal and social skills, which will be valuable in the future, too. “[Gymnastics] teaches you a lot: not to give up, to continue to work hard, to work as a group, to avoid and solve problems,” Comin said.
“When you work in the gym, you don’t have to pay attention only to what you do, but you’re also responsible for what others do,” Colombo added. “If you see someone who’s not working, you have to go there and tell her, ‘Get your shit together.’ … You’re responsible for yourself but also for other people. Other people count on you. This is something that you will carry over to any workplace in which you have to work with other people—it adds a lot.”
And it’s not all work, of course. “The relationships that you develop within the team are beautiful,” Colombo said. “It’s amazing to be able to share victories with somebody else and to know that it’s a result we all wanted and worked together for. It increases even more the size of the goal you have and of the goal you achieve.”
The two Italians’ appreciation for all that they are offered in the United States is another aspect of their personality that Brink loves. “The genuine nature with which they appreciate everything [is something they add to the team],” Brink said. “Clara’s gym in Italy was so small it didn’t even have mats at the end of the beam. I just remember being there and [thinking], ‘If someone falls off the end of the beam, they’re landing on cement.’ It’s just things that in the U.S. we would take for granted and that a lot of our U.S. student-athletes take for granted. [Clara and Martina] appreciate the facilities and all the things that they are given as student-athletes here at Nebraska.”
Welcoming international student-athletes, then, is a way for Brink to both offer gymnasts opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have and of educating American athletes to embrace the diversity of the world. “I think what ultimately adds to the uniqueness is that you have all these people from different countries and different continents, who come together and are able to work together towards one goal,” Brink said. “We speak one language—we speak gymnastics. [What gives meaning to it is how] we use this sport to continue to evolve as people, to continue to open doors for other international student-athletes who wouldn’t otherwise have the same experiences, but also to be able to embrace and use this common language of gymnastics to be able to work together and to create something special.”
“It’s important for our United States athletes, as much as it is for our other international athletes, to experience these different cultures and to start processing that the world has different values, different things and great unique things that make them individuals,” she added.
Should more international student-athletes take on the opportunity to join the NCAA, then? Colombo and Comin have no hesitation—the answer is yes. “Sport here is something that brings you together,” Colombo said. “You have nothing to lose. You only have an opportunity to take. You have all the means at your disposal, just try it.”
“It all starts with a, ‘I want to do sport during university,’ Comin added. “But it becomes a, ‘I get a thousand working opportunities, I learn English, I meet new people—I have a family on the other side of the world.’”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua; photos courtesy of Nebraska Athletics
Note: Both Colombo’s and Comin’s interviews were conducted in Italian and translated to English by Italian-native Ilacqua.
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