2021 USA Gymnastics Championships

Ruben Padilla Reveals The Struggle & Joys Of Pursuing The Olympic T&T Dream

Ruben Padilla Reveals The Struggle & Joys Of Pursuing The Olympic T&T Dream

Wasatch T&T gymnast Ruben Padilla hopes to qualify for the trampoline competition at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Read about his journey.

Feb 1, 2021 by Stephen Kerr
Ruben Padilla Reveals The Struggle & Joys Of Pursuing The Olympic T&T Dream

While most kids his age were busy making forts and castles out of sofa cushions and other household furniture, five-year-old Ruben Padilla had a different purpose in mind. Padilla, who hopes to qualify for the trampoline competition at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, would practice his acrobatic moves on the couch, a chair, anything he could get his hands on.

To channel their son’s boundless energy, Jerry and Nelia Padilla signed him up for soccer. But Ruben still found ways to show off his gymnastics skills during games and practices.

“Whenever my team would score, I would do a handstand or cartwheel on the field,” explained the five-foot-five Padilla, now 20.

That’s when Jerry and Nelia decided to enroll him in gymnastics lessons near their home in Oakley, California, a town of about 43,000 located in the Bay area. Ruben began doing artistic gymnastics until he was seven when his gym added trampoline.

That same year, he took part in his first national competition, capturing a gold medal in tumbling, a silver in the double-mini, and bronze in the trampoline competition.

That’s when it dawned on Padilla how much he loved the sport.

“I didn’t expect any of that to happen,” he recalled of that first competition. “It kind of started out as something to do on the side, and it quickly grew into my favorite thing to do.”

When Padilla was 14, he began training with his current coach Sven Nielsen, who was living in Sacramento at the time. Nielsen would often conduct clinics at the gym where Padilla trained, so the two were familiar with each other. Under Nielsen’s guidance, Padilla was invited to the U.S. Age Group Team selection camp at age 15, earning a spot on the U.S. squad. At the World Age Group Competition in Odense, Denmark, Padilla placed 14th out of 40 in the double-mini, and 35th out of 80 in the trampoline competition. The event featured athletes ages 11 to 18.

When Nielsen took a job at Wasatch Trampoline And Tumbling in Draper, Utah 2-1/2 years ago, Padilla didn’t want to break the bond the two had developed. With his parents’ consent, he went to live with a friend and joined Nielsen at Wasatch.

“Toward the second and third month, it started to get really hard, and I started to get homesick,” Padilla admitted. “But I had my parents coming to visit every other week, so it made it a lot easier.”

For Jerry and Nelia, the decision was a no-brainer once they got past the initial anxiety of being separated from their son.

“I think it hit my wife harder,” said Jerry, who works for a drywall manufacturer. “But it’s getting easier as time goes by. We’re very confident. He has Sven, we know he’s there and he keeps us posted on what’s going on.”

Ruben’s success continued with silver medals in the World and U.S. double mini competitions in 2018, a bronze in trampoline at the 2019 Pan American Games, and three silver medals at the World Championships that same year.

“He understands me more than anyone else,” Padilla said of Nielsen. “I can always count on him to be there for me. He isn’t just a coach, he’s like family.”

For his part, Nielsen is quick to deflect any credit for Padilla’s development.

“To be honest, (Ruben) has helped me as much as I’ve helped him,” Nielsen said. “I’ve just helped show him the way, but everything he’s done is on him.”

Success hasn’t come without a price. Padilla has suffered numerous injuries including a bulging disc in his back, a chest injury, sprained ankle, and a gash in his foot. But he’s learned to treat each mishap as a learning experience. The euphoria he gets when nailing a triple front with a half-turn or other difficult routines keeps him coming back.

“It’s an incredible feeling, when your hard work really (pays off),” he explained. “It’s something you can really be proud of.”

The toughest part about competing, Padilla says, is handling the nervousness that comes when he first walks out on the competition floor.

“There’s huge crowds, everyone’s cheering,” he said. “It really makes your nerves skyrocket. I just close my eyes, think about the routines I’m going to compete (in), take deep breaths to slow myself down, and compose myself. As soon as I salute the judge, everything goes silent.”

Jerry and Nelia have invested a lot toward their son’s cause. They’ve spent many hours holding fundraisers, cleaning gyms, and working overtime to pay for Ruben’s training. Watching him mature as an athlete and a person has made it all worthwhile.

“We can see this is what Ruben really wants,” said Nelia, who works with autistic children at an elementary school. “It’s given him a different perspective of life.”

Ruben currently attends Salt Lake Community College and trains an average of 15 hours a week. Aside from the competition, he relishes the bond he’s built with his teammates and coaches at Wasatch. They’re like a second family.

“Everyone in the sport has good sportsmanship,” he said. “It makes it easy to bond with teammates and even competitors.”

That sense of community has expanded beyond the gym. When he was living in California, Padilla often volunteered at his mother’s school working with special needs children.

“It’s a good feeling just to help people,” he explained. “You learn things like patience, being proud of the smaller things.”

When the coronavirus pandemic forced Wasatch to shut down for a couple of months last spring, Padilla went back to California to spend time with his family. Zoom calls helped him stay in touch with his U.S. teammates. As disappointing as the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was, he believes it may have actually benefited him in some ways.

“In (2020), I don’t think I was in the right headspace,” Padilla said. “With the quarantine and everything happening, it made me realize I still have a lot of time in the sport. Being pushed back one year was probably a good thing for me.”

Even the 2021 Games aren’t a sure thing as the pandemic continues to sweep across the U.S. and other countries. Padilla still needs to officially qualify for a spot. His specialty, the double mini, is not an Olympic discipline, so he’ll have to earn it through the trampoline competition. The Brescia World Cup is scheduled for April 23 and 24 in Italy, and Padilla must place in the top 30 for the U.S. to qualify.

All uncertainties aside, Nielsen believes there’s nothing Padilla can’t accomplish.

“We have a plan,” Nielsen said. “At this point, it’s whatever Ruben wants to do, whatever his goals are. If his goal is the Olympics, I have no doubt in my mind that he will do that.”