SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — For those searching for gold, it may be found in the hearts of three remarkable people, two-time Olympian Zuzana Sekerova, local gymnastics coach Sara Graceanna Wilson and local gymnast Charlotte Boatright. Each esteemed in the sport of gymnastics, all three sat with WSAV’s Hollie Lewis to talk about the realities of the gymnastics world and how they overcame obstacles to reach their goals.

Zuzana Sekerova

Born in Slovakia, Zuzana Sekerova, who was full of energy as a child, began gymnastics at around 4 years old. 

“I was one of those children climbing the walls at home and you know, just too much energy. I always joke that once mom took me to gymnastics, she forgot to pick me up and I was in gymnastics ever since.”

Early on, Sekerova didn’t dream of becoming an Olympian, she simply loved the sport and competing.  However, steadily, she worked her way up competing in over 10 Slovak National Championships, 4 European and 4 World Championships, 3 World Cups, European and World Youth Olympic Games, a Summer Universiade and finally, 2 Olympic Games.

“I’ve always taken goals sort of one step at a time.  It’s always nice to dream really big, but you also need to think about what the step is to get there. Really, I was just looking at the next step, the next competition,” Sekerova said.

The answer to that was the qualifying round in the 1999 World Championships in Tianjin, China.

“Literally after the competition, I was like, okay, I made it.  So now we can start getting ready for the Olympics,” she said.

Representing the Slovak Republic at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Sekerova competed in the all-around competition: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and the floor exercise.

After the 2000 Olympics she decided that she was done with gymnastics and relocated to Savannah hoping to do power tumbling, but gymnastics called her back once again.

“I ended up at the gym, just playing around and of course my competitiveness kicked in instantly as I got on the equipment, which restarted all of the fire in me again.”

She continued, “I got into competing and it was again, one step at a time, natural, restarting gymnastics, seeing where that takes me.  When I restarted gymnastics again I certainly didn’t have a goal to go to another set of Olympics, but that’s the way it ended up turning out with just training, competing, qualifying, and getting there.”

That destination ended up being at Athens 2004 Summer Olympics. However, she did not represent America, her then host country, but her native country of Slovakia.

“I was wearing the Slovak jersey, with our national emblem, it’s where I’m originally from and it’s who I always competed for.”

Today, looking back at what she accomplished in the sport of gymnastics, Sekerova doesn’t think there was one big thing that she had to overcome, to get to the Olympics twice, it was instead the everyday challenges and daily decisions she had to make.

“Gymnastics is an extremely challenging sport. Kids start at a very young age and it takes 30+ hours of training per week at the competition level.”

She continued, “Some of the challenges for me were ‘simple’ things like just making the decision that I’m going to the gym today, when all the kids were playing at the playground, or at the pool which I could see from the windows of the gymnastics gym, where we didn’t have fans or air conditioning. It was 90 degrees or more inside in the summer and below freezing in the winter.  That’s where we were training.”

Sekerova also reflects on some tough experiences she had throughout the years including her eating disorder.

“Unfortunately, body shaming was very pervasive when I was a gymnast. It started at a very young age. I remember being told I was fat and needed to watch my weight starting at about 8 years old. Now, looking at photos of myself back then, I was nothing but a muscular little firecracker,” she recalled.

She continued, “Later in my teen years, we were put on a scale sometimes as many as 4-times per day, then shamed and punished if the weight was even just few ounces higher than the previous weigh-in. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, many years of this ultimately resulted in an eating disorder.”

Regarding mental health, she thinks it’s important for not only gymnasts, but everyone and shares her thoughts on Simone Biles, who withdrew from the all-around gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics, and told reporters that she was having a little bit of the “twisties” which some describe as the mind and body disconnecting in mid-air that is brought on by fear or pressure and can be extremely dangerous.

“While it’s very unfortunate that Simone wasn’t able to compete in all events in Tokyo, I’m really thankful to her that she used her position to start a discussion around mental health in gymnastics and in sports in general. Mental health is just as important, if not more, as physical health and fitness for athletes.”

For those who might have a dream to someday reach the Olympics, Sekerova offers some advice, starting with taking advantage of technology that is available for athletes.

“Some of my current faves I wish I had when I was a gymnast are wearables like heart rate sensors, sleep, and recovery monitors. I am currently testing out the Whoop. I am also a huge fan of low-tech foam rollers as well as higher-tech massage devices, and compression therapy. I really think it would have made a huge difference in my career if we had these things available to us in the ’90s”

She also advised, “Continue to dream big and push forward but don’t wait to celebrate your wins until you make it.  Celebrate every step along the way because life takes different twists and turns and you don’t want it to come to whatever the end of the road is for you, and kind of realize that you didn’t enjoy the journey.”

Concerning celebrating every step along the way, Serekova said that a question she often gets asked is what it felt like to be in the Olympics.

“My answer usually is, it didn’t feel any different than any other competition because I could not allow myself to really think about it as being a big deal, as being something I should think about celebrating because one, it would bring up too many nerves and I needed to think of it  as just another day, just another competition and also, I’ve just been conditioned throughout the years to just always strive bigger.” 

She continued, “Things were never good enough.  The perfectionism that’s kind of built into the sport and looking back I kind of wish that I had been able to celebrate, really soak up the experience that I had. Living in the moment.  That would be maybe one of my regrets.”

Sekerova’s competitive gymnastics career ended in 2007 with a torn Achilles injury.  She has since recovered and explored other passions by trying dancing and photography but she decided to jump into the deep end with cycling.

“I learned about cyclocross but it took me some years before I finally raced for  the first time in 2019. After a break in 2020, I raced my second season of cyclocross in 2021. Throughout those two seasons, I managed to upgrade from Cat 5 to Cat 3 racer and closed out the 2021 season by winning the Cat 3 Texas State Championship in cyclocross. This year, I joined Cantu Cycling Wheels race team and have been racing gravel this spring and I am getting ready for cyclocross in the fall.”

She has also learned more about nutrition and strength training, which she said she wishes had known more about as a gymnast.

“There’s an extremely unhealthy culture around food in gymnastics. So much body shaming. We were told simply to skip meals while we were training 30-35 hours per week. With cycling, I am learning a lot more about what and how to eat to be able to perform.”

She continued, “With my history of bulimia and a very unhealthy relationship with food brought on by gymnastics, I really needed some help. I started working with an amazing nutrition coach, Dave Guerra, and we’ve had many conversations that are helping improve my relationship with food and allow me to think about food not as good or bad, but as fuel that is more or less beneficial to helping me achieve my goals.”

Not only is she eating more effectively, she is also training more effectively and has been working with strength coach Tanya Tudor.

“With Tanya, I am not only building strength but also learning how to recognize overtraining and what an effective recovery looks like. It’s not always about who trains harder and longer. Of course, hard training is part of any athletic achievement, but without learning to listen to your body, how you fuel it to perform, and what you do to help it recover, you won’t be able to keep chasing your dreams.”

Now residing in Texas, Sekerova also gives back to her community by volunteering. She volunteered with Tarvis County Search and Rescue for about a year, fostered dogs with Austin Pets Alive and volunteered with Austin Disaster Relieve Network after the “snowpocalypse” in Texas.

“This summer I am partnering with various cycling groups to organize cyclocross skill practices and clinics to help invigorate the cyclocross community in central Texas. I would really love to see more women with their bikes give cyclocross a try. It’s really a lot of fun! The great thing about cyclocross is that the rider can make it as fun or as challenging as they want to.” she said.

Sara Graceanna Wilson

At a young age, Sara Graceanna Wilson saw something on television that impacted her course for over a decade, the Olympics.  

“Many people see the Olympics, they see the gymnast just flipping around and just having these really great routines. I was one of them.  I saw the 2012 summer Olympics and I decided that I wanted to be a gymnast after that.”.

She did what she set out to do and not only reached the highest division in Xcel gymnastics, Xcel Diamond, but she also landed at the 2021 State Championships in Georgia. There, she competed on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise.  She placed in the top 8 in her age division, which helped in creating the Georgia team for the 2021 Region 8 Regionals, in which she also competed in. The Georgia team placed 6th.

In June, she also competed in the 2022 YMCA National Championships in Toledo, Ohio.  This national tournament draws only the best gymnasts in the country. It draws over 1,000 competitors annually, with skill levels ranging from entry level to the upper levels of US Junior Olympic competition.

Although Wilson is accomplished in the sport of gymnastics, she experienced what many gymnasts feel, the high level of perfectionism and pressure, but not from her coaches nor family members, it was from herself.

There were times that I did put lots of pressure on myself. Definitely, in my high school years, I didn’t have the key goal of going to the Olympics, but pressure would arise when I didn’t make a skill or I didn’t perfect the routine that I wanted it to be.  It definitely showed in my high school years.”

She continued, “I would say that I would call myself a perfectionist. I just love to have everything just so and perfect.  When things didn’t go that way, I would sometimes close myself off, get a mental block because I thought that I couldn’t do it.”

Now retired from gymnastics Wilson sheds light on how she handled self-pressure in the hopes of helping other gymnasts.

“Most of the time, I would go back to the basics of any skill that I did and just work on basics because basics is not only a good thing to do when you’re first learning a skill, it’s also good to backtrack and do basics so that you remind yourself that you can get the skill.”

She continued, “I would definitely tell that person that at the end of the day, they are still a great person and they are still a great gymnast and one practice does not define that person.”

Today Wilson also enjoys giving back to the local community she grew up in. Not only did she volunteer at the Islands Family YMCA as a junior coach before she became a qualified coach, but she also volunteers at the Walthour Equestrian Academy by helping special needs children mount horses. In addition, she volunteers for the YMCA Angel Tree and folds clothes to prepare for those in need.

“I volunteer because it gives me a purpose. I love helping with things and I find that I am most helpful when I’m giving back to whoever needs help. I just find so much happiness in knowing that I’ve helped in some way,” she said.

Charlotte Boatright

Charlotte Boatright may not be considered an average 15-year-old.  She is a student, community volunteer, coach, and a Level 8 gymnast who trains all year.  

At the 2017 National YMCA Gymnastics Championship & Invitational, where over 100 teams competed, she earned first place in the All-Around category and in the vault and balance beam events. 

Although she has seen success as a gymnast, loves getting to know new people, learning about leadership and basic traits that some may not learn with a team, her journey hasn’t been easy.

“I’ve had multiple injuries in gymnastics. Like, from concussions to broken hands, and I fractured my leg once. Different things like that. I think the hardest part is getting back up and coming back to the sport and going back to the skills that you specifically hurt yourself on after your injury.” 

However, like many great athletes, Boatwrights’ will to return to the sport didn’t cease, even though she did have concerns.

“Earlier this year I was actually doing my tumbling pass on beam and I landed wrong and I sprained my ankle badly. I was actually worried that I was going to come back and be really far behind from my other teammates, especially because I missed most of my meet season this year.  Coming back was really hard, especially trying to get my skill back that I hurt myself on. Once I got past the fear and kind of just threw it, I was able to get over it and move on and get other skills out of it.” she said.

As a gymnast and at the Islands Family YMCA she attributes her success to a solid support system.

“Without my family and my coaches and my teammates cheering me on, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at right now with gymnastics.”

She also has advice for not only gymnasts, but for athletes in general, “I wish I would have known that in the end if you keep pushing through, even through thick and thin, you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days.  As long as you keep your end goal in mind, it will all work out the way it should.”

Boatright with her coach, Amber Geisler. Photo provided by Charlotte Boatright.

She continued, “Don’t get discouraged by what people say and what people do.  Really put yourself out there and make yourself known and just keep fighting for your goal and for your dreams.”

Speaking of dreams, Boatright would like to someday be a Division 1 gymnast at the Air Force Academy.

“Division 1 gymnastics is kind of like the top level of college gymnastics.  I know the Air Force Academy is very hard to get into because it’s a military academy, but Division 1 gymnastics, I feel like, would give me an advantage in getting in because it’s a sport, not just academics.”

Outside of gymnastics and going to high school, Boatright enjoys racing cars, and giving back to the community by volunteering with the YMCA’s Angel Tree program where she helps to wrap and load gifts for local children in need. She is also a volunteer gymnastics coach, and volunteers for different school events and local race tracks.

“I volunteer at the race track, not as an organization, but just offering things to people who need help, or if they need a way to get their stuff to the race track I always volunteer to help them.  I just really like making others happy and seeing the excitement of others when they’re offered help or offered gifts and stuff like that,” she said.