Chalk Talk Tuesday: Vanessa Atler
Interview by Katy Jones
“I think a lot of people live their past and define it as who they are, and you can’t do that.”
She was the first American woman to compete the Rudi vault and she was doing jumps out of tumbling passes before it was “a thing,” all while adding National Championship, Goodwill Games, and American Cup medals to her collection. She could even toss a Reese’s in the air and complete a full flight series on beam with enough time before effortlessly catching it.
…So the last one might have been a stretch without a little CGI magic, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if Vanessa Atler really had been able to add that milestone to her long list of accomplishments. Atler burst onto the senior scene in 1997 as the reigning junior National Champion and quickly lived up to the hype as she became the co-winner of the 1997 senior National title. She followed up her success the next year when she came away from the 1998 Goodwill Games as a double gold medalist, then added even more titles to her repertoire during the next two National Championships with three golds and two silvers. Throughout the quad she consistently medaled in the all-around, excelled on vault, beam, and floor, and performed with a blend of artistry and power that was virtually unmatched.
Shortly after the 2000 Olympic Trials, Atler retired from the sport and spent time adjusting to her life outside of “being a gymnast.” She appeared on the reality show Starting Over to undergo both a physical and mental transformation. Today, she is passing along the lessons she learned from her time as an athlete and her post-gymnast experiences to the group of gymnasts she coaches. And though Atler is now a mentor to the gymnasts of tomorrow, she left quite a legacy and positive impact of her own on the sport during her competitive career.
Heading into the new quad, many gymnasts are starting to get their first major assignments. What was your first big senior appearance like?
Gosh my first big senior appearance- I feel like my first senior appearance was actually Championships. Oh you know what, I think it was American Cup. You know I think I was very nervous because I wasn’t sure where I would stand with other seniors. I think that was my biggest thing, was yeah, I won Junior Nationals, but it could be a whole other world. I could come in dead last. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, but I was kind of thinking it was new field and kind of starting point to see. It was exciting to be in the same field as people I looked up to.
Vanessa’s BB, 1997 Nationals-
Is there one meet that stands out as being your favorite? Or high point?
There’s a couple. First, senior nationals when I tied with Kristy Powell. And that was my first time realizing that I was just good as the other ones and people started looking toward me as something that was good. And the other was Goodwill Games when I won vault and floor. Probably the media thing was just the coolest part. When you’re very young you feel very special when a lot of people want to talk to you. It was an exciting time when I was on top.
Goodwill Games FX, 1998-
Your floor routine was highly praised for having artistry and powerful tumbling- what do you think of the direction artistic gymnastics is going based on the most recent COPs?
It’s hard to say. I’m such a tumbling person because I do love all the hard tumbling that’s there, but I think part of the reason I loved gymnastics and got inspired was Kim Zmeskal back in the day when they had fun uplifting floor routines you got into and really drew in the crowd. It’s kind of sad now because the tumbling is amazing and everyone is amazing, but the COP is so difficult that there’s no reason to risk their energy on the dance. I hope that they do start bringing some of that back. I think the four tumbling passes is crazy. It’s going to be slam packed with tumbling. But I feel like Nastia and Alicia Sacramone still know how to draw in people with their eyes and even though they don’t have that much dance, there’s still a couple of girls out there that still can [draw people in]. Even Svetlana Boginskaya and Svetlana Khorkina. That’s how you got to know their personalities. But i understand why coaches [put tumbling in instead of dance], and I would do the same thing because you don’t want to let them down and you want to get the highest score.
Your vaults and tumbling passes you competed in the 97-00 quad are still competitive today- did the power events always come easy for you?
Yeah I think so. I think always from a young age, except for when I was in compulsories. I sucked at vault. I could never get my steps correct! But I was never afraid of tumbling and I was never afraid of vaulting. Even tumbling on the beam was really easy for me. It wasn’t anything scary. [It] might have been hard to stay on the beam, but the whole fear thing with beam, it’s really hard to relate to when I coach now.
VT, US Nationals 1999-
What gymnast(s) stood out to you from this past quad? Either on the American side or internationally.
This was the first time I got excited about the whole US team. I really fell in love with Gabby before the Olympics. I fell in love with Aly at the Olympics. And then Jordyn Wieber with her story. I think still by far one of my favorite is Alicia Sacramone. She’s such a cool person. I think she’s someone I wanted to be like and I always wanted to be a cool gymnast. I thinks she represents the sport well.
What is the biggest lesson you learned as a gymnast?
Gosh there are a bunch of them! I think the biggest lesson was probably communicating. I think that’s probably the biggest one. And I still have a problem with it to this day, but I got so much better because of gymnastics. I was always a girl who did whatever anyone said. And it’s hard to coach when you have gymnasts who just say yes all the time. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love those girls. But I always tried to be happy. And I think if i tried to communicate with Steve [Rybacki] to tell him stuff I was upset about it would’ve been fine. I always tell my kids now I’m not going to stop you from quitting, but maybe there’s an answer we can come up with. It’s always better to talk things out, and you’ll always find at least one person willing to be there and listen.
It took a long time. I will tell you I still have days where probably 90% of my dreams are always doing gymnastics competition. It took me probably two years after I quit to really realize ok, I need to just move on from it and stuff. There would be little moments where I would want to come back. I tried one time to come back with Ben Corr. He was an elite coach. I was still kind of having eating problems, and I could tell I wanted to come back to prove people wrong. It wasn’t really because I didn’t want to do gym again, so that didn’t work out. Then I went back to Steve and told him I wanted to come back, but I think he was unsure and told me to come in a couple days a week and condition and see how it felt. And somewhere on a newspaper, it came out that I was coming back and then I just quit. I think the reasons for me wanting to come back were all wrong. I do love gymnastics, but it would be too hard for me with the way it ended. I think right after I realized that, I just said ok, I need to move forward. And I still went through a depression for another year or so where i just didn’t do anything. I laid in bed, my parents left me alone, and eventually I read some books and got up. But I still have dreams, it never really leaves you. But I’m very happy now and I think the coaching is very good therapy for me. It’s a way for me to still be involved with gymnastics and teach them lessons.
How did you decide to be a part of the show Starting Over?
Well it’s really weird because I used to watch it. The show was on before I was on it. I watched every day because I love stuff like that. Like self-help, crying, stupid stuff. And I liked Real World and stuff. So I was watching it and I saw my phone caller ID said [Bunim-Murray Productions] and I was like oh my gosh that’s the people from the Real World! They called and said, “We’ve been trying to look for an athlete who had a rough time and is trying to transition and move on with their life.” I think the reason I wanted to do it was because I thought I was going to lose weight on the show. That was the big thing. I didn’t think they were going to go that deep into my gymnastics stuff. I think they even called Jamie [Dantzscher] and she turned it down but I was like, “Oh my gosh I want to do it,” because I wanted to have help and wasn’t over my weight issue. So I thought it was going to be a fun experience. It also gave me another opportunity to tell my story, because I hate when people assume they know what happened.
Vanessa on Starting Over-
What’s your coaching style? How does it compare with coaches you had growing up?
Well I take stuff from everybody. Most of my stuff is from Beth and Steve [Rybacki]. Those are the two people I look up to about coaching. I hear myself say stuff that Beth said all the time. When she would have talks with you about having a hard time, she would have really inspirational things to say. She would say really meaningful things that hit home, and I do those with my kids all the time. So that’s something I’m really proud of taking from Beth. Also, Steve and Beth are such technical people that I’m able to carry that through and explain the technical part in a kid-like version.
How do your experiences as an elite and your experiences on Starting Over play into your coaching strategy?
Oh, actually I think the biggest thing that I learned from is the Starting Over show. My kids are only going to level 9 and stuff like that so it’s not that big of a deal. There is so much more coming, so if you crash and burn its ok. Yes it’s the biggest thing in your life right now, but there will be so much more. I’m able to look at them in that perspective and see they have such a long way to go, and at the end of the career, that’s when something big is going to happen and they can relax and be ok right now. But I think the stuff from Starting Over- I learned so much from that. Like communicating and being able to be happy with your life. And I tell my kids all the time, it’s not a big deal what’s happening right now because when you’re done at 18 or whatever, you’re going to have so much more life! It’s going to be such a tiny part. It’s not devastating. They fall apart if they get a 7 on something and I go, “you’re going to get a 7, you’re not going to die.” That’s what they used to tell me on Starting Over: “Are you going to die?”
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in your coaching career so far?
It was a hard transition for me to learn how to coach. I wasn’t a person who was instantly good at coaching. I still have so much to learn. I’m always looking for a very good mentor. I still go to Steve and I still go to Gliders. I think the biggest accomplishments for my coaching is my attitude and [my gymnasts] still wanting to have a great relationship with me when they’re done. Mostly they’re still happy kids and they still look at gymnastics as something they like. They look at it as something they had fun in and created a great relationship with me. Now getting kids really far is the part that’s going to take a long time and something I have to have patience with. I need to find that balance of them having fun and being disciplined to go far. I’ve gotten so much better at it, but I don’t ever want to have to raise my voice. I’m not that person. So I have to find different ways to get them motivated.
If you could change any gymnastics rule (either when you were competing or a rule in place today) what would it be and why?
I would take out the age requirement. The thought process was to protect the young kids, and they shouldn’t be doing hard skills and stuff. But in reality, we still have junior elites, and some junior elites are still doing the same skills as the senior elites. You have to be born at the right year. You have to be lucky. You have to peak at the right time. If you’re 10 years old and you can be with the best of the world, you should be able to do that. Just like theres no maximum [age requirement]. Oksana Chusovitina is still going. It seems like they make it so much harder for gymnasts by creating the age thing, and coaches are still training kids as hard that young anyway. And it’s forcing them to stay in the sport that much longer. It’s nice being able to watch someone enjoy what they’re doing when they come back older and willing only. And I think it protects the athletes because you can go to many more Olympics if you can go at a younger age.
Is there a quote or mantra that you live by?
I think my favorite one is “the past does not equal the future.” Whatever happened in the past is not who you are now. Today is a different day. Just because I didn’t do something doesn’t mean I can’t do it later. I think a lot of people live their past and define it as who they are, and you can’t do that. I live by that a lot. A lot of people have looked as my career as a failure, and I can move forward from that.
If you could trade lives with one person for a day, who would it be and why?
Oh geez! You know, I’m really into science lately. And the stars. And theres one guy name Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s a physicist, and one of the smartest people in the world and all that stuff. But I just want to be a super super smart person! Not book smart, but just smart about the world. Like people who have their life together and don’t make a big deal about things and are calming because I’m so the opposite.
If someone forced you to do karaoke, what song would you sing?
Oh I would have to go with Britney Spears. I’d probably do the “I love Rock and Roll” song she does.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to travel. I’m really into outdoorsy stuff. I like camping and going to the beach and riding bikes on the beach and I think just really traveling and going into little places and visiting. Me and my fiance, we go somewhere almost every weekend. I think its good for people to get out of their house and explore and do things. Anything outside in nature. I wish I was in better shape because I’m the type if I’m not in shape, I won’t try. But I want to try to surf.
Thank you so much for the interview, Vanessa! We wish you all the best in your coaching career and personal life.