Tasha Schwikert is an eight-year member of the U.S. gymnastics team, a six-time national champion and two-time winner in the all-around, a two-time Olympian, and was captain of the American team that won the gold medal in the 2003 world championships.
And she says that none of those individual accomplishments has given her the satisfaction she has enjoyed in leading UCLA into the NCAA championships beginning today at the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Pacific 10 Conference and Southeast Regional champion UCLA, seeking the school's 100th NCAA team title, must attain a top-three finish in a six-team preliminary round tonight in order to qualify for the six-team finals Friday. The individual championships are Saturday.
"It's just been amazing because it's not just you," said Schwikert, a junior who has won the all-around in six consecutive meets, including the Southeast Regional on April 14. "It took so many other girls in order for us to" reach the NCAA finals.
"When I win the all-around, that's great, but that's something I can control more," she added. "When you have a team and everyone does their job, that's so rewarding."
Schwikert, 22, already had an impressive portfolio when she joined UCLA's program after the 2004 Olympic Games.
In her first season with the Bruins, Schwikert won the 2005 NCAA all-around title and led UCLA to a fourth-place finish in the team competition.
But last season Schwikert and the Bruins faltered. Schwikert had shoulder surgery and missed most of the season and UCLA failed to qualify for the NCAA championships.
The struggles continued this season when a nagging Achilles' tendon injury forced Schwikert to skip competing in floor exercises for more than a month before the Pacific 10 Conference championships in early April.
"That's what makes this experience so great," Schwikert said of the Bruins' late-season success. Schwikert is the team leader, but for inspiration she turns to sophomore Ariana Berlin, whose meet performances have bolstered the Bruins even though injuries have prevented her from training with any consistency for months.
Berlin spent five days in a medically induced coma after sustaining two broken legs, a broken wrist, two cracked ribs, a collapsed lung and a broken collarbone as the result of a November 2001 car accident, and after competitions she's still feeling the ill effects.
With a steel rod still implanted in her right leg, Berlin was on crutches for three days after the Southeast Regional, yet none of the Bruins doubt she will be in the lineup today.
"She just pushes through hardships," Schwikert said of Berlin. "It's incredible how in competitions she's extremely consistent.
"Ariana is just so inspirational. If you have a group of girls and you needed to pick someone to go hit for you, if I was the coach, I would pick Ariana."
Coach Valorie Kondos Field said toughness has proven to be a key characteristic of her team.
"This team really surprises in that they just have such unwavering belief in themselves," said Kondos Field, who has led UCLA to five NCAA titles -- including four in five years from 2000 to 2004. "Gymnastics is such an easy sport for things to fall apart with one mistake. But not this group.
"It starts with Tasha, who is the ultimate athlete. She eats it, breaths it and lives it.... She makes sure that she takes care of herself as an athlete first.
"With Ariana, I don't know how she does it. She has practiced maybe four times and she keeps getting better with her form.... But that's what this team has been about and made it so much fun to be in the gym."