SAN JOSE – Back in 2016, Nola Matthews went to the U.S. Olympic Trials at SAP Center and found herself mesmerized as she watched some of her favorite gymnasts battle for a spot on Team USA for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games.
Matthews was even more inspired when some former Olympians, including 2004 gold medalist Carly Patterson, visited one of her practices at Airborne Gymnastics in Santa Clara that week.
“I want to do what they’re doing someday at the Olympic trials,” Matthews, then 9, told her mother.
Seven years later, Matthews returns to SAP Center this weekend – only this time she’ll be on the floor, not snapping pictures from the stands as the Gilroy native is among the nation’s top gymnasts in San Jose this week for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
“It’s really cool,” Matthews, now 16, said of the opportunity to compete at the same arena that helped ignite her Olympic dreams. “It’s been a long time coming, I think a lot of work has to be done to get to this point. But it feels very full circle.”
The men’s senior and junior divisions, which include 11 Stanford gymnasts, began Thursday, while the women’s competition starts Friday and runs through Sunday.
It’ll be stiff competition for Matthews, who finished fourth in all-around earlier this month at the U.S. Classic, a competition that saw the highly anticipated returns of Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee. Not only will those two be putting on shows this week, but so too will Olympic medalists Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles along with several other athletes with world championship medals.
With a year to go before the 2024 Olympics, these gymnasts are vying for the chance to represent the U.S. at upcoming international competitions including the Paris Games next July.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” USA Gymnastics high performance lead Chellsie Memmel said.
But Matthews views this as an opportunity to once again showcase her ballooning confidence, new floor routine and upgraded balance beam routine as she prepares for her ultimate quest: a shot at the five-person Olympic squad.
TAMPA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 19: Nola Matthews competes in the balance beam during the 2022 US Gymnastics Championships at Amalie Arena on August 19, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Matthews has continued to grow as an all-around gymnast over the last few years, but has plans to upgrade her vault and add more difficulty to her other routines while keeping her execution deductions to a minimum. The uneven bars, though, are best and favorite event.
“The feeling of catching releases and flying through the air,” she said, “it’s just a feeling I crave.” She makes it look effortless, too.
Matthews has always been a natural bar swinger, gravitating toward the bars on the playground. That’s part of why her mother, Kari Bertrand, signed up for a “Mommy & Me” class at USA Sports, a since-closed gym in Gilroy.
Never could Bertrand have imagined gymnastics would take her daughter to where she is now.
Matthews has earned three national team assignments, representing Team USA in the 2023 Pan American Championships in Medellín, Colombia, where she helped the U.S. finish first overall and won an individual title on uneven bars and fourth in all-around. She’s also competed twice at the DTB Pokal Mixed Cup in Germany.
“I’m incredibly proud of her,” said Bertrand, who qualified for the 1996 Olympic trials in track and then again in 2004 for marathon running. “I truly admire her dedication to the sport.”
But it’s been a grueling process to get to this point.
Matthews excelled quicker than most. So much so that by age 7, coaches at the Gilroy gym recommended her parents find her a higher-level facility that could help develop her talents.
After wrestling with leaving her friends, she took the leap of faith and joined Airborne, an hour drive from home. It wasn’t long before the gym’s owner Melanie Ruggiero recognized Matthews’ potential, too.
“I remember telling her mom that the uneven bars are going to be her big ticket because, at such a young age, she had this natural ability to aggressively swing on bars,” Ruggiero said. “Nola’s greatest attribute, though, is her willingness to commit to the grind.”
That commitment included being homeschooled after fourth grade so she could focus more on her training. Matthews works on her craft 30 hours a week.
“Nola is willing to work almost harder than anyone I’ve seen to get to her dream, to meet her goals,” Ruggiero said.
Matthews finished 13th in the U.S. Championships a year ago but appears more poised to handle the bright lights. A big reason why has been a change in her mental approach.
After Matthews finishes each turn or tumbling pass, she can expect the same question from her coach Cleo Washington.
“How does that feel?”
When Washington first started asking that, Matthews didn’t know how to respond. She would search for whatever answer she thought Washington wanted to hear. But Washington encouraged her to find her voice. Finding the equilibrium between her mind and body is as delicate a balancing act as performing her new beam combo: a back handspring into back-to-back layout back flips.
“What I’m most proud of, having moved to Airborne four years ago, is how far she’s grown as a human in terms of communication and confidence and feeling so good and so comfortable in her own skin,” said Washington, who previously coached world champion gymnast Morgan Hurd.
Before she moved to California, Washington knew Matthews as the bar kid. She also knew Matthews was very anxious, to the point of being physically ill before competitions.
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“It looked like she needed some confidence, basically,” said Washington, who accompanies Matthews at camps and international assignments. “She looked like she was trying to make herself smaller. So when I came, my first goal was I just wanted her to trust me.”
Deep breathing helps Matthews stay mentally grounded before she soars through the air. She also disclosed she has many superstitions, like only wearing black pre-wrap for competitions and using a blue spray bottle on bars. She lost her spray bottle during podium training this week and asked her mom to run to Target to pick up another.
“[The superstitions] don’t make any sense,” she said. “But mentally they help me.”
Matthews has competed on the world stage several times now, but now that stage will be in front of family and friends.
How does that feel?
“Oh God, I guess we’re going to have to see,” she said with a laugh. “I just have so many people I know [coming.] I’m excited.”
WEST VALLEY CITY, UTAH – JULY 30: Nola Matthews competes in the Floor routine during the women’s senior division of the U.S. Classic at Maverik Center on July 30, 2022 in West Valley City, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)