Junior says absence stemmed from heart
In the wake of a season-ending injury to a team captain Jan. 19, the Rutgers gymnastics team needed a spark — something to help soften the blow from the loss of senior Jenna Zito, a point-scorer and leader.
The Scarlet Knights received that spark from junior Luisa Leal, former EAGL Rookie of the Year and NCAA Regionals qualifier in 2011. Leal made her season debut Saturday at Penn State, leading Rutgers on vault by capturing fifth place in the event with a score of 9.775.
As a freshman, Leal put together one of the strongest rookie campaigns in program history. She performed all-around in 11 meets and set a school record with a score of 39.375 in a tri-meet against Bridgeport and Ursinus.
It was a long road back for the international gymnast from Cali, Columbia, who dealt with what she called a “technical problem” with her heart since last competing Jan. 20, 2012.
“I didn’t injure myself doing gymnastics. Nothing happened to my body, my joints,” Leal said. “It was my heart, so I had to get that fixed. I was just really sad to sit down the entire season knowing that I started the first few meets with pretty high scores. It was very frustrating.”
Possibly even more frustrating than missing an opportunity to compete in most of her sophomore season was the growing fear Leal might never get a chance to compete again.
Leal said she needed a heart procedure five times before she was free of cardiac symptoms and cleared to compete again.
“I just felt like I was never going to get fixed,” she said. “But after that, I got really confident about it and started working out hard.”
After months of rehabilitation and determination to return to the floor, Leal said finally seeing competitive action at Penn State was a rewarding experience.
“The feeling of having the team around you, that adrenaline you feel when you see the green flag go up, it was just great, man,” Leal said. “When we were [at Penn State], I just felt like I had never missed a day. I was right back into steam.”
Head coach Louis Levine did not shy away from expressing the importance of Leal to the future success of the program.
“Look, she’s an international-level competitor. She’s got one of the best vaults in the country, and it’s there every single time — it’s the same,” he said. “It’s always good to enter one of those back in. As we can get her back on more and more events, she’s an elite-level competitor who will help us on every event she’s able to compete as we move forward.”
Leal will likely bolster Rutgers on more than vault as soon as this weekend.
She said she will probably compete on uneven bars and the balance beam as well Saturday at the Livingston Gym against Pittsburgh, Brown and Southern Connecticut.
For updates on the Rutgers gymnastics team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GJohnsonTargum.