March 16, 2005
BERKELEY - Calling Nicki Wells an overachiever is an understatement, at least according anyone who has ever competed with or against her in the gymnastics realm.
The label comes from the athletes and coaches Wells trains with everyday - the people who see the first-year California gymnast at work when the scoreboard sits packed away and self-criticism stands as the only judge in the gym. The group routinely arrives for afternoon practice only to find a glistening Wells already inside, fixing up her floor exercise. These are the folks who understand the commitment required of a Division I athlete from personal experience.
Their opinions matter.
"When I ask Nicki to work on something, she always comes back and wants more," Golden Bear head coach Cari DuBois said. "She never takes the easy way out. And I've worked with some really hard-working athletes, but a lot of times with Nicki, you have to tell her to stop."
It's a characteristic the coaching staff knew little about, even as they recruited Wells a little over a year ago.
"We really lucked out with her," DuBois said of New Zealand's 2003 all-around national champion. "She was looking at us and sent us a videotape. When we talked on the phone I really liked her personality - I liked everything about her. So she kind of found us, and for that we're very fortunate."
Since arriving in the Bay Area last August, Wells has also been pleasantly surprised with her end of the deal. Knowing Cal had a solid program coming in, Wells hoped that by signing with the Bears, she would be able to work on more than just her beam dismount. And so far the sunshine seems to be providing Wells with just the base tan she was looking for - an expectation that sounds a bit ridiculous, until you hear about Wells' previous weather predicament.
"Last December, when it's meant to be summer (in New Zealand), it rained every day except for one," said Wells. "So, I definitely don't miss the rain."
She does, on occasion, wish for a few things from home, with mom's cooking and spending time with friends topping the list. But after relocating more than 6,000 miles, the simplicity of the shift continues to remind Wells that Cal was, and remains, the place for her.
"The transition wasn't that hard, really," Wells said. "The freshmen, we all got along really well, so in an instant we had friends."
This happy recruiting coincidence has eased DuBois' workload so much this season, she still wonders what she did to deserve it. "I put Nicki (in the dorms) with another gymnast and it just clicked," DuBois said. "Now the freshmen are always together. It's my first year without any conflict and the season's just been great because of it."
Great, minus the injuries. Out of the 12 women that make up this year's squad, only seven remain in any shape to compete. The other five have or will undergo surgery soon, repairing everything from a torn Achilles tendon to worn out ankles and shoulders to an anterior crucial ligament tear.
While the injuries have made setting any team scoring records difficult, for Wells, the extra development time has been extremely beneficial.
"Her confidence and her consistency are improving, and she's hitting personal bests on a regular basis," DuBois said. "So as a freshman, she's getting a ton of experience that's really going to help us leadership-wise in the future."
DuBois' comment touches on an aspect of Wells' past that few know about, and those that do may not realize its significance. Until now, like the majority of first-year collegiate gymnasts, Wells had yet to compete for anyone other than herself. Though she was a member of the 1999 and 2003 New Zealand World Championship teams, the group was only a team in name. Wells noted that even after having left home at age 12 to further her gymnastics career, she is just now learning the added responsibilities that being part of a team dynamic places on her performance.
"I feel a lot more pressure, but I'm getting used to it," Wells said. "And competing every week is really good, as well."
That's yet another trait of the college-level culture to which Wells has adapted quite nicely.
"I competed as much as I have this year in about four years in New Zealand," Wells said. "We were just so far away, we didn't travel that much."
This left Wells with a limited number of opponents, few performances to compare with her own and less incentive to develop than many of her teammates who grew up in the United States. That may be the best explanation for her unparalleled amount of self-motivation, a quality Wells possesses in such abundance, even the men's squad has taken note.
"The biggest impact of her hard work is the effect it has on the rest of the team," said junior Shawn Mowry, a co-captain of the men's team who trains beside the women on a daily basis. "Her work ethic has really rubbed off on the rest of the girls."
The team's next big test is set to take place in Haas Pavilion, when the rest of the conference comes to Berkeley for the Pac-10 championships on Saturday, March 26. The meet starts at 3 p.m., and tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, youth (under 17) and seniors.
Regardless of the Pac-10 results, things are looking up for Cal. With a healthy team and Wells' unlimited drive leading the way, the Bears of the next few years appear ready to reach a level of success the Cal women have not seen in quite some time - thanks in part to a gymnast from half a world away for whom the compliments never seem to end.
"My favorite part about Nicki is that she listens so well and she's so respectful," DuBois said. "She comes to me after practice and says thank you. I just really enjoy being around her."
For more information on the Pac-10 Women's Gymnastics Championships, contact Chris Giovannetti at 510-643-5846 or firstname.lastname@example.org