Former U.S. Elites Desch, Shchennikova, Vega Make A Splash As NCAA Freshmen

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While much of the focus on this year's freshman class fell on former big-name elites such as Maggie Nichols, Madison Kocian, and MyKayla Skinner, there were several other former U.S. elites who quietly made a name for themselves on their teams.

Michigan's Polina Shchennikova, Alabama's Maddie Desch​, and Georgia's Sabrina Vega all struggled with injuries that kept them off the mat during their elite careers. But all three contributed to their collegiate teams in 2017 while making the transition from elite to college gymnastics.

Shchennikova showed plenty of potential, particularly on the uneven bars during her elite career. The Evergreen, CO, native had a string of injuries that prevented her from reaching her full potential on the elite stage -- stress fractures in her back during the 2014 season and nagging injuries in 2015. She had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in her shoulder in May 2016.

Shchennikova spent the preseason at Michigan finishing her rehab from shoulder surgery and was on the competition floor at the start of the season for the Wolverines. The transition, she says, wasn't what she thought it would be.

"It's been a unique transition, honestly, completely different than what I could have ever expected it to be," Shchennikova said. "But having the girls welcome us with open arms was really helpful, and also having four incoming freshmen really helped make the transition a lot easier.

We stuck together from the beginning.
For Shchennikova, the most challenging part of the transition came in her recovery from shoulder surgery.

"The most difficult transition was that I'd just had surgery that May, so I was not practicing at the time," Shchennikova said. "So being away and having to recover in a whole new environment and with new people and a new staff, that was really difficult. But I couldn't have done it without them, so I'm really thankful for that."

She contributed on the uneven bars in all 13 meets during the 2017 season despite the shoulder surgery. It's the event that has always been one of her favorites.

"I've always loved performing bars. I've always been attracted to the event ever since I was a little girl," she said. "My dad's favorite event was bars and my mom's favorite event was bars and that was an event they really [wanted] me to do. I just love the flow of the event. It has a different feeling than all the other events."

She hit a 9.800 or better in 10 meets and scored a season-high 9.900 twice. She also competed on vault three times and performed an exhibition several times on balance beam. With her injury behind her and some big names graduating for the Wolverines, look for Shchennikova to have an even bigger impact as a sophomore.

Both Desch and Vega competed for the U.S. women internationally at the World Championships in 2014 and 2011, respectively. Both gymnasts were also vying for a place on the Olympic team in Rio. Vega announced her retirement from the elite world after the 2015 U.S. Classics, while Desch retired in May 2016 after a nagging back injury.

Desch, who was a member of the 2014 Pan American Championship-winning squad, contributed on three events for Alabama this season. She struggled a bit in the first half of the season, particularly with her landings on vault and floor.

Despite the difficulties early in the season, Desch enjoyed her transition to collegiate gymnastics, especially the team atmosphere.

"When I compete, I always hear my teammates cheering for me, and I think that's the best part about the transition," Desch said.

I love competing at Alabama. I love the coaches. Just the way you're competing for something more than yourself when you're a part of a team like that. I think that just gives you even more purpose and makes it even more exciting to want to do well for not just yourself but your team.
Off the mat, the balance between academics and gymnastics has presented its own challenge for the 19-year-old.

"When you come to college, the academics [aren't] just something you can devote minimal time to and still do well," Desch said. "You really have to devote countless hours of studying [into it], and I think just putting that on top of gymnastics keeps you busy. That's probably the most challenging part."

Desch scored a 9.800 or better seven times on vault, nine times on balance beam, and 11 times on floor exercise.

Vega's path to Georgia was more unusual than most. The 21-year-old freshman opted to push back college in order to make a run at the Olympics for a second time. She finished 10th at the 2012 Olympic Trials and did not earn a place on the squad. After taking some time off, she returned to the gym during 2014.

But coming in a little bit older and a little bit wiser has provided her with a different outlook than what she would have had otherwise.

I get questioned a lot why I'm 21 years old, but coming in older has given me a better view and I just appreciate it more.
Vega points to the focus on execution over difficulty as one of the biggest parts of her transition into collegiate gymnastics.

"It's more of performing skills to perfection instead of throwing really huge skills like in elite," Vega said before the NCAA Championships. "It's more execution based than difficulty based. So that was a huge thing for me to focus on preseason, and now in season that's been my main focus from meet to meet just fixing the little details on all my skills."

Vega led off on balance beam for the Gym Dogs -- an event which the team struggled on at times. It's an event that combines both her favorite and most challenging skill: her acrobatic series.

"When I was little, my series was the biggest skill for me to get over a fear of," Vega said. "So I think my series was my hardest skill [to learn] because of the fear factor in it of not seeing while you're flipping. Now that's probably one of my favorite skills to do on the beam."

Vega contributed on both beam and floor for the Gym Dogs in 2017 with solid scores on both events. She scored a 9.800 or better 11 times on balance beam and eight times on floor exercise.

Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia all had some struggles at different moments during the 2017 NCAA Championships. All three squads are also losing seniors to graduation and will be looking to fill some of those places in the lineup. With one season in the books, Shchennikova, Desch, and Vega all have to potential to make even more of an impact for their teams in 2018.

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