As the sounds of Carlos Santana’s guitar fill the air, Luisa Leal-Restrepo steps up to the mat, throws her hands in the air, and with effortless grace and power takes her first tumbling run across the floor of the Livingston gym. The standing-room-only crowd erupts in thunderous applause.
A Balancing Act
At 18, this Cali, Colombia, native, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, is an emerging star for the Rutgers gymnastics team. During her standout performances last year, she tied a school record for the vault and shattered another one for all-around competition. She capped off the season by being named the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Freshman of the Year.
Luisa not only represents Rutgers in NCAA competitions, she is also a senior elite gymnast on the Colombian national gymnastics team and was a member of the 2010 World Team. Though selected to perform at the Pan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October, she sat them out due to injury. While she's eligible to compete in next year's Olympics, she has set her sights on competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
On January 7—her birthday—she starts her second season at Rutgers. Meet this petite gymnast who approaches everything with a passion and drive that makes her stand out head and shoulders above the crowd.
How did you get started in gymnastics?
When I was 7 years old, I joined the cheerleading team for my school in Colombia. I practiced in the gym where the national gymnastics team coach worked. He asked my mother to start bringing me to the gym three days a week, then four days, until I reached five days a week. It became clear that I had a natural talent for gymnastics. I did both sports for five years, but then I realized that if you try to do a lot of things, you aren’t going to be able to put 100 percent into everything. So, I decided to focus on gymnastics.
What was your proudest moment in the sport?
I was competing at Nationals in Seattle and I saw a long line of college recruiters waiting to speak to my coach. Seeing them standing behind him, realizing they were interested in me, really changed my life. I knew I was good, but I guess I never really believed it. I thought, “man, they must see something in me, so it must be true.” I was offered nine full scholarships.
Why did you decide to come to Rutgers?
When I started thinking about college, Rutgers was in my top two. My coach Juan Agudelo, who lives in New Jersey, brought me to Rutgers for a tour. I thought the New Brunswick Campus was beautiful and decided on the spot that this was the school for me.
What has your experience at Rutgers been like?
It’s been great. I really like my classes in sports management, and my professors are awesome. That’s what I like most about Rutgers—the people. At Rutgers whenever you ask for help, somebody is there for you. This has made a big difference for me since I am so far away from my family in Colombia.
How has Rutgers helped you grow?
In Colombia, I was part of a team, but we didn’t really get to know one another, because we all lived in different cities. We would compete together then go our different ways. Competing with the Rutgers team taught me that even though gymnastics is an individual sport, it’s also a team sport. I wasn’t only caring about myself, I was also caring about how my teammates did. I learned how to support them and how to accept support from them. Now, I know if I do well, they applaud, and if I don’t, they are there to hug me.
Watch Luisa Leal-Restrepo’s floor routine as Rutgers commentators Danny Breslauer and former Rutgers gymnast Kristen Zdanowicz discuss her performance during a March 5 meet at the Livingston Recreation Center.
How do you compensate when you have a bad performance?
At that moment I get angry. I might not say good things about myself but at least I say them in Spanish. After that first reaction, I have to realize that what I am doing is not for me alone. I have to remember that I represent Rutgers, I am part of a team and I need to focus. If you stay in that state of mind and keep thinking "I messed up, I’m terrible," you are just making your life miserable.You can’t stay there.You have to stand up and finish like the best. You have to fight for your team, fight for your uniform, and fight for that R.
What does your typical day look like?
I train for both the Rutgers squad and Colombian National team six days a week. My day starts at 5:30 a.m. I attend classes and practice gymnastics six hours a day. I never get a lot of sleep. So whenever I have 30 minutes or an hour between classes, I take a nap. I keep pillows and blankets in my car. I do my homework late at night, but if I have to write a paper or study for an exam my coaches are really great about giving me extra time to study. Doing the impossible is kind of fun.
What are your future plans?
From the first day I did gymnastics, I fell in love with it. I just love it! So when I compete in the Rio Olympics in 2016, I hope to hit my peak and then retire from competition when I am at my best. Then I am going to finish school. I love to study. I’m kind of nerdy that way. I want to go all the way to get my Ph.D.