August 18, 2019 | 81° F

Freshman paces squad from outset

When the Rutgers gymnastics team recruited Luisa Leal-Restrepo, expectations were sky-high. She was a veteran of the Colombian national team and training for the Olympics. While inflated expectations are a hallmark of recruiting in collegiate athletics, in the case of Leal-Restrepo, the hype was true.

In her first season as a Scarlet Knight, Leal-Restrepo managed to achieve everything Rutgers could expect of her. She won the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Freshman of the Year Award en route to an individual berth in all-around competition in NCAA Regionals.

While Leal-Restrepo's coaches and those familiar with her talents expected her to reach those heights, Leal-Restrepo has a single-minded focus on performing well both on the mats and in the classroom.

"When I came here, I didn't know how far I could go. I didn't know about NCAA or awards. I didn't even know we were going to be in the newspaper," said Leal-Restrepo, The Daily Targum's Freshman of the Year. "I just always tried to give 100 percent and do as much as I could."

While many freshmen arrive at college enthralled by new social opportunities, Leal-Restrepo impressed her coach with an ability to enter a new environment and avoid potential first-year pitfalls.

"She is very motivated and education is very important to her. She didn't get caught up in partying or anything else," said head coach Chrystal Chollet-Norton. "She takes everything very seriously."

Beyond the awards she earned, Leal-Restrepo found competing with a team to be the most rewarding part of her season. Prior to arriving at Rutgers, Leal-Restrepo never regularly competed with a team she was able to bond with and grow with as a unit.

"I never had a team in my life. I competed sometimes with the Columbian team, but that wasn't a real team. We knew each other's name and that's it," Leal-Restrepo said. "I think I learned how to compete as a team. I felt the support and energy of the other girls and I tried to support them, too."

While working with a team was largely a positive experience for Leal-Restrepo, competing with the same group each week generated a little more pressure. Leal-Restrepo recognized people she had grown to be like family with counted on her to perform.

"I get really nervous when I compete. Whenever I am staring at the beam or bars, I feel a little like running away, but I remember how much I love doing what I am doing," Leal-Restrepo said.

As the year went on, Leal-Restrepo improved on her nerves with the help of her coach and teammates.

"To have a meet every week was tough for her. She worked to learn how to control her nerves," Chollet-Norton said. "Some of the upperclassmen helped out with working with her. By the end of the year, she really improved hitting all of her routines. She was finally able to hit her bar and beam."

In a season filled will accolades, it is odd Leal-Restrepo classifies her best moment of the season as one that occurred during one of her worst statistical meets. But it shows how much she values the connection she made with her coach and teammates.

"When I got off the beam during the last meet of the year and I had fallen, I apologized to Chrystal. She grabbed my head and said, ‘Don't worry because you don't even know how proud I am of you and I love you,'" Leal-Restrepo said. "It was one of my worst meets of the season, but it meant a lot to me."

While she will no longer have Chollet-Norton, who retired, as a source of comfort, Leal Restrepo's attitude for her future is positive. Despite having no idea who her coach will be next year, Leal-Restrepo believes that the year will be positive regardless of changes.

"I'm going to work to make any situation good," Leal-Restrepo said. "I'm used to competing and working with anyone."

Josh Glatt

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