Mother sees daughter compete for first since emigrating to U.S. from Colombia
Luisa Leal’s journey is to the Rutgers gymnastics team is nothing short of remarkable.
The fifth-year senior’s story is one swirling with adversity and overwhelming odds. But somehow, she found her way through it all.
Leal grew up in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. It is home to over two million people and is the most populated city in the western part of Colombia.
When she was exposed to the sport as a seven-year-old, Leal became hooked.
“I was seven years old, it kind of just happened,” Leal said. “I joined the cheerleading team at my school and I used to go to the gymnastics gym. In Columbia, it’s not like here [in the United States]. There’s only one gym per city. I started going to the gym on Saturdays to practice the gymnastics part of cheerleading and the coach there asked, 'Do you want to start coming three times a week?' And it just happened.”
As Leal’s gymnastics career progressed, she began to dream of competing in the United States and earning a scholarship to a university. Despite the support of those close to her, the gymnast’s friends and family thought the dream was far-fetched.
“My biggest dream with my gymnastics my whole life was, get a scholarship in America,” said Leal. “Everybody used to say, 'You’re here [Colombia]. You don’t even speak English. How are you going to get there [the United States]' ... and I had no idea, but [I knew] it’ll happen.”
At the conclusion of her second year of high school at Liceo Benalcazar in 2008, Leal moved to the United States at 15. She resumed her gymnastics career in a new country and completed her final two years of high school via an online program called UNICAB Virtual.
“I came here in 2008 and started to compete,” Leal said. “I finished my last two years of high school online and it happened. Here I am. I never had a doubt.”
Leal became a world-class gymnast and earned a scholarship to compete on the team at Rutgers. She enrolled at the University in 2010 and has helped turn the program around. During Leal’s time as a Scarlet Knight, Rutgers appeared in the 2014 NCAA Regionals.
Leal performed in the competition and she counts it as one of the highlights of her career.
“Making it to regionals as a team was such a big deal for us,” she said. “We had been trying for so long, and we finally did it. It was great. I had been at regionals before but as an individual. And it did not feel like the same thing. Having the team there was great. … That was a good moment.”
After living in the United States for seven years to date, Leal now considers it her home.
But things have still been hard from time to time.
“A lot of things are definitely different,” Leal said. “I’ve been here almost seven years so, I’m pretty Americanized like my family and my friends say back home. Even though, here, I’m the foreigner, there, I’m Americanized — I’m in like a limbo.”
The gymnast has gotten used to the American lifestyle, but still misses her native country and its culture.
“I’m more used to the American lifestyle than the Colombian lifestyle, but I miss my mom and I miss my family,” she said. “I miss the food, the weather, but this is home now. When I go to Colombia, it feels like I’m visiting and it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Leal’s mother still has not seen her compete as a Knight due to the distance between Santiago de Cali and Piscataway.
She is finally taking the seven-and-a-half-hour flight to see her daughter perform at the Louis Brown Athletic Center for Senior Day on March 7.
“I do get jealous when I see the home meets and all of my teammates’ parents are here,” Leal said. “My mom has never seen me compete. … But she is coming for the senior meet so, I’m very excited about that. Finally. I mean, last home meet ever — and she’ll finally see me. It’s just great.”
Co-captain Emma Hoffman credits Leal as the cornerstone for the rebuild of the program.
The two teammates have become great friends. If anyone asks Hoffman about who the talented athletes in the gym are, she points to Leal.
“I think she’s really meant everything,” Hoffman said. “She was the start of us growing as a team and she showed girls from New Jersey who were looking at bigger schools ‘See that? You can come to Rutgers and you can accomplish big things here.’ She’s been a great leader and a great asset to the team.”
As the season winds down, head coach Louis Levine looks to Leal as someone to help Rutgers take another historic step in program history by delivering its first Big Ten win.
With six meets remaining on the schedule, he believes that is a task that can be done.
“She [Leal] was part of a class that really started to shape a change in wanting more,” Levine said. “She’s an elite, world-class level gymnast. Not everything has been easy and there’s been a lot of battles. … She’s worked hard and done a lot of great things. … We’ve got six meets left, so she’s going to go out there and perform the best that she can.”
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