University of Denver Gymnast Alexis Vasquez Shares Her Story and Hopes to Create More Conversation Along the Way

Published by: Holly Ruvo

Interviewed by: Ben Ruvo

Alexis Vasquez Headshot 2020
Alexis Vasquez, University of Denver
Women’s Gymnastics ’22

Alexis Vasquez is a Gymnast for the University of Denver, originally from Arcadia, California. Vasquez is very accomplished; in 2019 she was a WCGA Scholastic All American, a WCGA First-Team All American, a Corvallis Regional co-Champion on the beam, made the All Big 12 Conference Team, and was a newcomer of the week for the weeks of January 28 and February 25. Her career high on the beam is 9.950 as she reached that feat four different times. View the link below for a full bio on her career thus far.

Ben: Explain to us your athletic career growing up until today. How did you get to where you are as a college athlete?

Alexis: I started gymnastics when I was 6 years old at a gym in California. Beginning at level 4, I found a passion for the sport and was able to quickly move up each level. When I was 11 years old, my parents and I knew that I would have to train at an elite, high level gym if I wanted to become a top elite gymnast. In June 2011, I moved to Iowa with my mother  to train at Chow’s Gymnastics, leaving my sister and father in California. I stayed in Iowa for a total of 4 years, seeing my father an average of twice a year. It was during this time that I competed at elite level meets, attended national team camps, and made the national team. An endless amount of incredible achievements were made during this time. Due to my success as an elite athlete, I had many offers for college gymnastics. My freshman year of high school was when I committed to DU. Those 4 years in Iowa changed me not only physically, but mentally as well. I grew to hate the sport I once loved and found myself crying everyday either in gym or at home. After those 4 years, I moved back to California to train level 10 and hopefully regain my passion for the sport. Slowly, things started getting better. In the summer of 2018, I moved out to Denver to start training with the team.

Ben: Can you please give us some insight on your mental health experiences?

Alexis: My mental health issues were developed during my 4 years training elite. Every single practice was filled with expectations you were expected to achieve. If you didn’t do what was expected of you, your practice was filled with words and actions meant to tear you down. During this time, I never came across the idea of quitting… that just wasn’t an option because I wanted to make my coaches and parents proud. I wanted to show them all that they weren’t “wasting” their time on me. OCD: Before I knew it, I developed “even-ness.” Everything had to be even – the number of steps I took to get to the bathroom, the number of reps I did on every event, the number of times I touched something with my right hand vs my left, etc. If I stepped on too many lines/cracks with one foot, I would feel uneven and would have to do the exact same amount with my other foot to continue on with my day. ANXIETY: I was always nervous and my hands were always sweating. My brain never shut off. I couldn’t stop thinking about gym, whether that be skills I was afraid of, or just all the assignments I had to do the next day. I spent each day thinking and worrying about the current day as well as the next 5 days. In my head, I could never get ahead of the game enough to relax. My mind was always racing with things that did, would, or could happen. DEPRESSION: Of course I was sad. I felt like I was failing my coaches and parents every time I didn’t get picked for an assignment or couldn’t do the reps everyone else was doing because I was injured. I was stuck in a never-ending spiral of guilt. I knew I could be better, but at the same time, I knew I was never going to be good enough. 

Ben: When you were going through this, how did you eventually prevail?

Alexis: I prevailed through loads of therapy and conversations with my parents. It took an immense amount of time, but I came to the realization that it was possible to follow my own path towards happiness while making them proud at the same time. In the end, they were the most proud of me when I was in a good place and striving towards something I truly wanted, not something I assumed everyone else wanted me to be. This was the hardest step for me. I had to trust in my heart that they were happy if I was happy, and that they didn’t want/need anything more from me.

Ben: How has your mental health journey impacted you as a college athlete?

Alexis: Being a college athlete and having dealt with my mental health struggles, makes me appreciate the sport and the people that are there to help me 1,000x more. Looking back at my worst times have let me enjoy the time with the sport that I have left. I no longer strive for perfection. Of course I want to be the best, but I am also okay with not being the top gymnast because I put value in the person I am more than the gymnast I am. I know I have a good heart and I can/will help others with the gifts I have. That now means more to me than any gymnastics award I could ever receive.

Ben: How do you think we can become more aware as a society about disorders like OCD and stop the stereotypes?

Alexis: I think that we can become more aware as a society through being educated about these topics. Most of the people I talk to have a general understanding of mental health disorders, but do not understand the underlying impact that having a disorder can have. By the time students arrive at college, they should have a solid understanding of what mental health is at a minimum. Being more educated about the topic as well as the increase in conversation about it within social media and the internet should also bring an increased awareness to people of all ages. This will hopefully lead to more questions being asked and therefore more conversations being had. The most important thing is that people know it IS REAL and there are ways to help.

Ben: How else are you going to use your platform to expand the mental health conversation?

Alexis: I hope to create more conversation about mental health by sharing my personal story. I hope this will create conversation amongst athletes, parents, and anyone else that wants to understand this issue in more depth. I also hope to continue writing and sharing more specific stories about my journey. I plan to create a conversation amongst younger gymnasts by potentially visiting club gyms and speaking to the girls there. This would help them obtain a baseline understanding of issues they may face, as well as steps to overcome them. 

Ben: Do you have any advice for people who are dealing with these disorders right now?

Alexis: My only advice would be to have hope and trust in the people that want to help you. Even when I lost my hope, the people around me didn’t give up, and they helped me find my hope again. I would also say that no matter what you think and no matter what reasons you give, you are always stronger than your illness/disorder

Ben: What do you think schools and coaches could do to address this issue more?

Alexis: I think there needs to be more two-way communication with athletes and coaches, especially in the world of club gymnastics. There is only so far you can push an athlete before they break. On the other hand, if the coach and athlete form an actual healthy relationship, it will lead to a more successful career for the both of them. An athlete will always perform better if they are doing it because of the love they have for the sport, rather than the fear or guilt they may feel. Ultimately, I believe that coaches need to find a happy balance between authority figure and respected friend.  I believe that schools should talk about mental health disorders on a regular basis in order to decrease the stigma, as well as educate kids about what it really means to be anxious, depressed, etc. The movement needs to be pushed in schools so more people can face their problems head on, instead of merely being confused about their emotions.

Ben: Why do you think it is so hard for athletes to open up and talk with their coaches and teammates about what they are going through?

Alexis: Nobody wants to seem weak when everyone else around them seems to be strong. The last thing a high level athlete wants to do is be perceived as weak, or perceived as trying to find some excuse. In the athlete’s mind, they might not even know the severity or even existence of their condition, and may label their feelings as pure weakness. Therefore it makes sense that no athlete would want to share anything but their strengths with their coaches or teammates. This is a time where many athletes such as myself feel trapped, with no way out.

Ben: How were you able to build the confidence to open up to your teammates and coaches?

Alexis: Building confidence to open up to my teammates and coaches was definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I first had to find the courage and strength in myself to realize that I was only speaking the truth to them, so they were kept in the loop and could further help me on my path to success. I had to know in my heart that I wasn’t displaying my “weakness” to them, but instead I was doing what only the strongest and bravest people could do. Once I came to grips with this, I was able to openly talk to my coaches and teammates without being judged or thought of as weak.