Matthews, whose specialty is the uneven bars, finished fourth in the U.S. Classic earlier this month
SAN JOSE – Nola Matthews attended the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials at SAP Center and was mesmerized as she watched some of her favorite gymnasts compete for a spot on Team USA for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games.
Matthews was inspired even more when former Olympians, including 2004 gold medalist Carly Patterson, came to one of her practices at Airborne Gymnastics in Santa Clara that week.
“I want to do what they’re doing someday at the Olympic trials,” Matthews, then nine, told her mother.
Seven years later, Matthews returns to SAP Center this weekend, but this time she’ll be on the floor rather than taking pictures from the stands, as the Gilroy native competes in the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
“It’s really cool,” Matthews, now 16, said of the chance to compete in the same arena that sparked her Olympic dreams. “It’s been a long time coming, and I believe there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to this point.” But it feels like a full circle.”
The men’s senior and junior divisions, which include 11 Stanford gymnasts, began on Thursday, while the women’s competition begins on Friday and runs through Sunday.
Matthews will face stiff competition after finishing fourth in all-around at the U.S. Classic earlier this month, which featured the highly anticipated returns of Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee. Not only will those two perform this week, but so will Olympic medalists Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, as well as several other world championship medalists.
With a year until the 2024 Olympics, these gymnasts are vying for the opportunity to represent the United States at upcoming international competitions, including the Paris Games next July.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” USA Gymnastics high performance lead Chellsie Memmel predicted.
But Matthews sees this as an opportunity to show off her growing confidence, new floor routine, and improved balance beam routine as she prepares for her ultimate goal: a spot on the five-person Olympic squad.
Matthews has improved as an all-around gymnast in recent years, but she wants to improve her vault and add more difficulty to her other routines while keeping her execution deductions to a minimum. However, the uneven bars are the best and most popular event.
“The feeling of catching releases and flying through the air,” she said, “it’s just a feeling I crave.” She also makes it look effortless.
Matthews has always been a natural bar swinger, gravitating toward the bars on the playground. That’s why her mother, Kari Bertrand, signed up for a “Mommy & Me” class at USA Sports, a now-defunct gym in Gilroy.
Bertrand could never have imagined gymnastics would lead her daughter to where she is now.
Matthews has earned three national team assignments, including a spot on Team USA at the 2023 Pan American Championships in Medelln, Colombia, where she helped the US finish first overall, winning an individual title on uneven bars and placing fourth overall. She has also competed twice in the DTB Pokal Mixed Cup in Germany.
“I’m incredibly proud of her,” said Bertrand, who qualified for the 1996 Olympic trials in track and then again in marathon running in 2004. “I admire her commitment to the sport.”
But it’s been a long road to get here.
Matthews excelled faster than most. So much so that by the age of seven, coaches at the Gilroy gym recommended that her parents find her a higher-level facility that could help her develop her talents.
She took the leap of faith and joined Airborne, an hour away from home, after struggling with leaving her friends. It wasn’t long before the gym’s owner, Melanie Ruggiero, recognized Matthews’ potential as well.
“I remember telling her mom that the uneven bars were going to be her big ticket because, at such a young age, she had this natural ability to aggressively swing on bars,” Ruggiero said. “Nola’s greatest strength, however, is her willingness to put in the effort.”
That commitment included homeschooling after fourth grade so she could focus more on her training. Matthews dedicates 30 hours per week to her craft.
“Nola is willing to work almost as hard as anyone I’ve seen to achieve her dreams and goals,” Ruggiero said.
Matthews finished 13th in the US Championships a year ago, but he appears to be more prepared to handle the spotlight this time. A significant factor has been a shift in her mental approach.
Cleo Washington, Matthews’ coach, will ask her the same question after each turn or tumbling pass.
“How does that feel?”
Matthews had no idea how to respond when Washington first asked. She’d look for whatever answer she thought Washington wanted to hear. But Washington encouraged her to find her voice. Finding balance between her mind and body is as delicate a balancing act as her new beam combo: a back handspring into back-to-back layout back flips.
“What I’m most proud of, having moved to Airborne four years ago, is how far she’s grown as a human in terms of communication and confidence and feeling so good and so comfortable in her own skin,” said Washington, who previously coached world champion gymnast Morgan Hurd.
Washington knew Matthews as the bar kid before she moved to California. She also knew Matthews was anxious to the point of becoming physically ill before competitions.
“It looked like she needed some confidence, basically,” said Washington, who travels with Matthews to camps and international assignments. “She appeared to be attempting to shrink herself.” So, when I arrived, my first goal was to gain her trust.”
Deep breathing assists Matthews in staying mentally grounded as she soars through the air. She also revealed that she has many superstitions, such as only wearing black pre-wrap for competitions and using a blue spray bottle on bars. She misplaced her spray bottle during podium training this week and asked her mother to run to Target to get another.
“[The superstitions] don’t make any sense,” she said. “However, they help me mentally.”
Matthews has competed on the world stage several times, but this time it will be in front of family and friends.
How does that feel?
“Oh God, I guess we’ll have to see,” she laughed. “I just have so many people I know [coming.]” “I’m very excited.”