It takes strength to find victory in defeat—an important life lesson thrust upon Emily Sanchez ’16 at an early age. When the real estate market collapsed in 2011, insurmountable financial hardship caused the Sanchez family to lose their house, but not their hope. Her mother modeled responsibility, perseverance, and optimism by facing the challenging job market with determination. Watching their mother struggle and sacrifice for the family, Sanchez and her sister, Brenda, learned the value of hard work and enduring hope.
While sharing a room at their grandmother’s house, the girls talked about their future. “My sister helped me understand our situation didn’t have to be permanent, that we could embrace it and make the best of it,” said Sanchez. “That was a big eye opener for me.” She soon realized that the best way to impact her own life and her family’s was to become a first-generation college student. “I wanted to be a role model for my younger cousins who look up to me.”
An all-league track and field star at Covina High School, Sanchez believed she had a shot at some kind of athletic scholarship and set her sights on Azusa Pacific. After years of gymnastics, track and field, and cheerleading, she hoped to earn a spot on an APU roster, but never dreamed it would be in a sport she had not heard of. During her campus visit, she discovered acrobatics and tumbling, a relatively new endeavor at APU and a complete mystery to Sanchez. Intrigued by the mix of athleticism, strength, and agility required, she participated in an open tryout and landed a place on the team.
Head Coach Colleen Kausrud remembers Sanchez as a standout that day. “In tumbling, most new athletes will attempt to throw a full—a layout with a full twist; more advanced athletes progress to the next step, a one-and-a-half twist,” said Kausrud. “Emily wanted to be here so badly she had the guts to try out with the most challenging move. She was fearless.”
Having never competed in acrobatics and tumbling, let alone seen a competition, Sanchez entered the new sport blind but hopeful. “I didn’t expect it to be such a great fit for my personality,” said Sanchez. “It’s individual in the sense that each person is highlighted, but every point matters from a team perspective, and I really enjoy that aspect of it.”
Most athletes need time to adjust to competition at the collegiate level, and spectators also learn as they attend the events. “The attendance numbers for our meets prove that this is a fan-friendly sport people want to watch,” said Kausrud. “It’s like Cirque du Soleil, but with a competitive approach.”
That enthusiasm fuels the sport’s growth every year. Sanchez joined the team just as Azusa Pacific and five other universities formed the inaugural membership of the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association in 2011. As popularity and awareness increased, so did NCATA membership, which experienced its first round of expansion in 2014 when five new programs joined Azusa Pacific and the other NCATA founding members. New member colleges hail from Hawaii through the northeastern U.S., bolstered by USA Gymnastics adding team acrobatics and tumbling to its national youth programs. Each addition marks another step toward the NCAA’s coveted “emerging sport” tag, which would likely spur further expansion and an increased fan base.
While most spectators come to watch the impressive aerial twists and flips performed by the top-position athletes, Sanchez’s role on the team draws less attention, as she provides the strength and balance that allow her teammates to perform difficult stunts with ease. That support helped Azusa Pacific highlight its 2014 campaign with a regular-season upset of the University of Oregon, snapping the Ducks’ NCATA-record 31-meet winning streak.
More than 2,000 people attended the 2014 NCATA Championship finals, capping off three days of competition showcasing the year’s best individual and team performances. After attaining a perfect 10 in a group discipline for one of Azusa Pacific’s five titles at the individual-event finals, Sanchez provided the same solid support in the Cougars’ national runner-up finish as a team. “Emily doesn’t need to be in the spotlight, but she’s the strength on the technical side of everything we do,” said Kausrud. “She helps her teammates see that dimension, and her personality allows her leadership to shine.”
Sanchez’s impact partly stems from her athletic skills that helped her team become the first NCAA Division II program to compete in the NCATA championship final, and she earned NCATA All-American recognition for the excellence and consistency of her performance. Her leadership distinctive, however, draws from a deeper source and the wisdom she gained from overcoming challenging circumstances. In turn, that tenacious athlete inspired her teammates to redefine their championship loss and focus on the positives: community, friendship, love, and above all, hope.
Joe Reinsch ’01 is the sports information director at Azusa Pacific University. firstname.lastname@example.org