Engineering Success: Academic Whiz Serena Leong Builds Confidence in the Gym
By Mara Rudolph
That’s the only word sophomore Serena Leong cares to use to describe her first preseason as a California women’s gymnast.
Leong huffed, puffed and even wheezed her way through cardio, strength and skill sessions last fall in Berkeley, all the while battling self-doubt and uncertainty about her gymnastics ability.
“When I came in, I was definitely not in the shape necessary to be a college gymnast,” she said. “I thought there were so many other people there that were better than me. I didn’t think I’d make a lineup unless I’d be performing an exhibition.”
To Leong, it’s no small wonder that she eventually smiled and flipped her way to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors while having a standout year in the classroom, as well.
Leong started her club gymnastics career at age 5 and advanced through the ranks. In 2006, she was a Level 7 state team member and the state floor and all-around champion before claiming the Level 8 state vault, floor and all-around titles a year later. Despite her success, Leong wasn’t sure if she was wasting her time with gymnastics and wondered if she should dedicate her focus to her academics. Before she started high school, she considered quitting.
“I was just tired. I’d always heard stories that high school was really hard and it would be really hard to do gymnastics at the same time,” Leong said. “Also, I didn’t think I was very good, so I didn’t think I wanted to continue.”
Becoming the Level 9 national beam champion in 2008 helped convince Leong to stick with gymnastics for a few more years.
In high school, she juggled a daily schedule of school, a one-hour roundtrip to her Edge Gymnastics club, up to five hours of training and another several hours of homework. In the gym, Leong progressed as the state’s Level 10 floor champion and a national qualifier in 2011, but her doubts about her talent as a gymnast remained. In the classroom, she was far more certain of her abilities. She was a four-year earner of the Scholastic Achievement Award at Chinese Christian Schools in Alameda and a National Merit and AP scholar, and helped her school win the Science Bowl Championship in 2010.
When it came time to choose a college, Leong had already decided on majoring in bioengineering, thanks to the summer Cosmos program at UC Davis she completed after her sophomore year of high school.
“I applied to the biotechnology cluster at UC Davis because I thought it looked really cool,” Leong said. “Just reading the description about seeing changing cells, I was thinking ‘Oh cool!’ It was really exciting and I got to do a lot of hands-on work.”
She ruled out the Ivy Leagues because they were too far from home and because she also held onto the idea of competing as a collegiate gymnast. Though Leong says she was just “one phone call away” from committing to UC Davis, Cal’s then-head coach Danna Durante convinced her otherwise and soon enough Leong earned herself a spot on the Cal team and in Cal’s bioengineering program.
Leong is now one of less than 450 bioengineering undergraduates and part of only a handful of 2012’s 1,750 undergraduate applicants who were admitted to one of the world’s Top 10 bioengineering programs. She had very few growing pains adjusting to Cal’s academics, finishing her first year with a 3.815 grade-point average while balancing a rigorous course load.
Though the academics side came easy, the transition from club gymnast to collegiate gymnast was anything but.
“Serena came into our program with loads of potential, but not a lot of belief in herself and her abilities,” said Cal assistant coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell. “There were definitely struggles in the early stages of the training when Serena doubted whether or not she could accomplish the things that we believed she could accomplish.”
Early into the preseason, Leong discovered that part of the reason she had been struggling so much was because she had asthma. After adjusting to the diagnosis, things slowly started to come together. Leong blossomed under the tutelage of first-year head coach Justin Howell and Crandall-Howell, and found herself more willing to try skills she shied away from as a club gymnast.
“Justin and Liz’s coaching is really different from what I grew up with in club,” Leong said. “It’s kind of a struggle for me to change my technique that much, but there are so many things I would do with Justin and Liz that I would never do in club. I trust them so much that I know that what they’re doing is to help me, and they know I can do it. The way they coach has definitely brought out a lot of trust in me so that I can make changes that help my gymnastics immensely.”
By the start of the season, Leong’s gymnastics had changed immensely. She earned spots in the vault and floor lineup and added beam to her range of events by the second meet. Bolstered by the team around her, a quiet confidence started to grow.
“It was really cool to be able to perform my routine and see my teammates all in that row and shouting as loud as they can,” Leong said. “Not only was my team cheering for me, but they knew that I could make it, and they were counting on me to make it. That’s why I made lineup – because I could contribute.”
As the season progressed, Leong was not only making lineup – she was anchoring it.
“She lights up the arena and pulls you in to every performance,” Crandall-Howell said. “It’s impossible not to be affected by her charms and electric smile while she’s on the competition floor.”
Leong posted career-best 9.90s on both vault and floor twice during the season, along with posting a 9.775 on beam three times. She claimed six second-place titles and two third-place wins, including second-place on the floor exercise against Stanford and on vault at the NCAA Corvallis Regional.
“I wasn’t really looking at the scores,” Leong said. “It was just so much fun to be out there with my team.”
Even with the success, Leong’s name was the last one she expected to be called as the Pac-12 announced its Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award at the conference championships last March. She became Cal’s first gymnast to receive the honor since it was introduced in 2000.
“To me, that trophy represents me surviving and also thriving in my first year,” Leong said. “It feels like a great accomplishment to actually have that symbol of how far I’ve come in one year.”
Now, heading into her sophomore year on the heels of one of Cal’s best seasons in program history, Leong has added one more skill to her repertoire: confidence.
“Last year, I was so frustrated by my inability – no confidence, not cardiovascularly ready, no strength,” Leong said. “I’m not starting from scratch this year, and it’s refreshing to be able to do difficult routines right now and not be phased by it. I think last year I capped myself, and this year, I know I can do so many things and do so much better. It’s a lot more confidence and a lot more excitement to know where I can go from here.”