Gymnast Nagashima notches NCAA nationals success

Sarah Nagashima got some television exposure when her University of Arkansas gymnastics team took fifth place in the NCAA championships in April. But she wants more TV time. First, the 2006 Juanita High graduate would like the Razorbacks to notch a return trip to the finals — and hopefully take first. Next, the apparel-studies major jokes that maybe a spot on “Project Runway” could be in the cards.

Sarah Nagashima

Sarah Nagashima got some television exposure when her University of Arkansas gymnastics team took fifth place in the NCAA championships in April.

But she wants more TV time. First, the 2006 Juanita High graduate would like the Razorbacks to notch a return trip to the finals — and hopefully take first. Next, the apparel-studies major jokes that maybe a spot on “Project Runway” could be in the cards.

This summer, the 21-year-old is back in the area and interning at DareDevils Activewear, a gymnastics leotard company.

On her own time, she likes to “modify existing clothes — cut it up and change it around,” Nagashima said.

That’s kind of the way her gymnastics career has gone. The senior-to-be has worked through injuries, stepped into a new town of Fayetteville, Ark. and helped take a small, young team to the big NCAA show.

“Our team is really close — we had the same drive toward the same goal, to go to the Super 6 (NCAA finals),” said Nagashima, who thrived in her leadership role. “We had team-building exercises: We got in a circle and wrote notes that say something positive about everyone else. It all helps.

“It’s good to know that everyone has everyone else’s back.”

Individually, Nagashima tied for third on the balance beam (9.90), becoming the first Razorback to place in the top three at nationals. For her effort, she earned first-team All-American honors.

“This is the peak of my entire gymnastics career,” said the 5-foot-1 Nagashima, who also made the 2009 Southeastern Conference Winter Academic Honor Roll. “I kind of changed and have a more mature attitude, more positive, because I am pretty hard on myself. And getting the experience under your belt helped a lot, too.”

Nagashima, who favors studded belts and red Converse Chuck Taylor low-top shoes, reminisced about her gymnastics beginnings and progression while relaxing near the entrance of Juanita High last Wednesday.

She took up the sport at 9 years old at Northwest Aerials in Totem Lake, and then followed her coach John Carney to the Auburn Gymnastics Center and Gymnastics East in Bellevue. She suffered a stress fracture to her back along the way, but rebounded to finish first in every Level 9 event at regionals in ninth grade. At Level 10 the next year, she took fourth on beam at nationals.

Then came an injury to her right ankle while tumbling at practice that would plague her for the next two years.

“It was really difficult,” said Nagashima, who competed on the club level during high school. “There was a time when I wanted to quit because it was so hard to deal with.”

Despite the injury, she still performed at meets in order to get recognized by scouts. She battled through the adversity and eventually snagged a scholarship to Arkansas.

“If I could do that, I can do anything,” she smiled. “It was a personal confidence boost.”

Carney, who now coaches at Oregon State University, gave Nagashima guidance and helped her “focus on the big picture, not just what was happening then,” she said.

Arkansas proved to be a good fit for Nagashima, ranging from Fayetteville’s scenic hills and trees to the hip downtown to the school’s stellar sports facilities and welcoming personnel.

However, she still had to deal with that ankle when it came time for gymnastics. Nagashima had surgery before arriving at school her freshman year with a boot on her ankle. She performed on the bars and beam a few times her first year, and then sported an ankle brace on all events her sophomore year en route to the Razorbacks’ 10th-place finish at nationals.

That paved the road for this year’s Super 6 success and beyond.

“We have high expectations for ourselves, and we’ve got three really good new girls that will really help our team,” Nagashima said of the upcoming year in which the Razorbacks will visit the University of Washington Feb. 26. “We want to win nationals so bad.”

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