Yale Athletics

In the sport of gymnastics, an Achilles tendon tear is a career-ending injury. But not for Jessica Wang ’19.

Watching the junior from Chino Hills, California leap, flip and twist her way to three ECAC Specialist of the Week awards this season, it’s difficult to imagine that, this time last year, she was unable to put any weight on her left foot.

“[Wang] was determined to beat the odds,” head coach Barbara Tonry said. “Looking at where [she] was one year ago … it is incredible to see where she is today.”

A contributor on both the uneven bars and the balance beam this season, Wang’s dependable scores helped the Elis to their first Ivy Classic title since 2005 as well as their second-straight ECAC Championship. For her efforts, Wang has qualified to compete as an uneven bars specialist at the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships, to be held at Penn State this Saturday. She will compete alongside teammates Jacey Baldovino ’21 and Jade Buford ’20, who have both qualified to Regionals as all-arounders. For context, the last time a Yale gymnast qualified for Regionals was in 2010.

Wang qualified to Regionals with the highest Regional Qualifying Score — the average of a gymnast’s second through sixth best scores throughout the season — of any uneven bars performer, specifically those not already qualified as part of a team or as an all-arounder. On Saturday, she will face, among others, the 2017 NCAA uneven bars champion.

“It was surreal to find out that I qualified to NCAA Regionals since it didn’t seem within reach beforehand,” Wang said. “I’m excited and a little nervous to be competing at such an important meet alongside Jade and Jacey.”

Although Wang was the USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Champion on balance beam in 2016, it is her bar work that has been the highlight of her season. Wang’s routine achieves the maximum start value of 10.000, and is packed with tricky connections that require extreme precision to execute. For example, Wang performs a clear hip circle — a skill in which she pulls the bar to her hip, rotating her entire body about the bar before launching into another handstand — connected directly into a bail, where she releases the high bar and spins 180 degrees mid-flight before regrasping the low bar in a perfect handstand. Throughout her routine, Wang demonstrates flawless form, natural rhythm and pencil-straight handstands.

Despite achieving near-perfect scores of 9.900 on bars twice this season — personal bests, as well as the second-best mark in Yale history — Wang is laser-focused on fixing the few mistakes that still deprive her of the ever-elusive perfect 10.000.

“I’m getting deducted on my legs coming apart on my bail and when I don’t stick my dismount,” Wang said. “I try to practice sticking at least two dismounts [every day] in practice and improving my consistency. As for my bail, I get my coach to spot me so that I can focus on keeping my feet together. Sometimes, I’ll have a teammate record my practice routines to see if I’m getting better, cleaner.”

Wang’s outstanding season, even after her major Achilles injury last year, speaks to her work ethic and dedication to the sport. Despite being unable to train the entire 2016–17 season, Wang continued attending practices and competitions to cheer on her teammates. During the summer, Wang continued to come into the gym, working on physical therapy and conditioning exercises as her injury slowly healed.

Because the uneven bars test primarily upper body and core strength, it was the event that was affected the least by Wang’s Achilles injury.

“Obviously, the dismount was affected by it,” assistant coach James Williams said. “But one of the biggest things was regaining her confidence.”

Wang’s renewed confidence comes in tandem with her new role as an upper-level student on the team. This year, she has taken more responsibility for the fluidity of the team dynamic, helping to maintain morale in the gym, counsel teammates through mental blocks and bridge occasional communication gaps with coaches.

Wang has waited two years for her breakout season —  before her Achilles injury as a sophomore, she was also sidelined most of her first year by an unrelated stress fracture in her foot. In her upcoming senior season, she hopes to leave a lasting impact.

“I would love to make it back in [the all-around] for my senior season and finish my gymnastics career to the very best of my ability,” Wang said. “[Next year] I want to see [the team] build off of our amazing accomplishments this season and defend our Ivy and ECAC titles.”

The Elis head as a team to the USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Championships next Friday. This meet is distinct from the NCAA Gymnastics National Championships, for which Wang, Baldovino and Buford will have the opportunity to qualify at NCAA Regionals this Saturday.

Raymond Gao | raymond.gao@yale.edu