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Gymnastics helps Lizzy LeDuc grow as a Filipino

By Ashley Wijangco

Illinois freshman gymnast Lizzy LeDuc made her first trip to the Philippines in May 2014. Despite being half Filipina and feeling like she resembled a Filipina, she noticed that she still stood out among all of the Filipinos there.

“I don’t look like them, super dark, and I hadn’t been tanning for a while,” LeDuc said with a laugh. “So I was kind of white.”

As a result, native Filipinos stared at her wherever she went. LeDuc said she’d receive these stares whether she was walking about or eating, and it was “a little uncomfortable.” The staring didn’t bother LeDuc much, though. She called Filipinos “really sweet people,” and enjoyed her time there.

Halfway through her trip, though, LeDuc had everyone’s eyes on her for an entirely different reason.

LeDuc was in the Philippines for two weeks to compete for a spot on the Philippine National Team. She spent her first four days there training for a meet that would serve as her tryout. For three days following the meet, LeDuc competed against other Filipino gymnasts at the PSC-POC Philippine National Games in May 2014.

“We had this competition, and it actually took, like, 12 hours,” LeDuc said. “It was the longest — we had a lunch break in between! We did two events and then were like, ‘Okay, lunch break!’ Yeah, it was awful, but then we competed, and … I finished first.”

LeDuc’s success grabbed everyone’s attention, and made them forget she didn’t look like a native Filipina.

Along with her first-place all-around finish, she won gold medals on balance beam, floor and uneven bars. Those achievements earned her a spot on the Philippine National Team.

She first imagined being on the team in 2013, after talking to a friend.

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LeDuc met Ava Verdeflor in 2011 after joining the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy — better known as WOGA, the gym that produced 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin. When LeDuc left that gym, she still remained friends with Verdeflor.

In 2013, LeDuc heard Verdeflor was a member of the Philippine National Team, and she became intrigued by the idea of reuniting with her former teammate.

“Honestly, I thought, ‘Why not?’” LeDuc said of joining the Philippine National Team. “You work so hard to do something great in your sport, and I feel like it’s an opportunity you just wouldn’t want to pass up.”

When LeDuc was named to the team, she, yet again, became teammates with Verdeflor, but Verdeflor wasn’t the only person who influenced LeDuc’s decision to suit up for her country.

Tammy DeGuzman, LeDuc’s main coach from January through May, competed as a gymnast for the Philippine National Team. Twenty years ago, DeGuzman won a gold medal in the 1995 Southeast Asian Games, and gave LeDuc insight into what it’s like to compete for the Philippines.

“I encouraged Lizzy to compete for the Philippine Team knowing that they need her talent and personality,” DeGuzman said. “It is different competing internationally, and I wanted Lizzy to experience it.”

LeDuc had her chance to compete internationally for the first time in June at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games. She first learned she would have a chance to compete at the SEA Games after making the Philippine National Team, but two foot surgeries — the first one coming in September 2014 — put her opportunity in question.

“I had surgery on both of my feet,” LeDuc said. “My muscle was overdeveloped, so they had to release the muscle and then decompress the nerves on both of them.”

The surgeries sidelined LeDuc until January, when she returned to the gym and started to run and work out using an elliptical. It was at that same time DeGuzman became LeDuc’s main coach and helped her train for the SEA Games. LeDuc even went as far to say DeGuzman is one of the main reasons she was ready for the competition.

“She was always there supporting me,” LeDuc said. “When I just wanted to give up, she would help me. She would be the one to be like, ‘OK, breathe. You can do this.’ If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have made it. She was a really big part of my life then, so she means a lot.”

DeGuzman had high hopes for LeDuc at the SEA Games. She felt LeDuc “had a great chance” of medaling on beam and “really wanted her to place in the all-around.”

But that’s not how it turned out.

LeDuc became sick before the SEA Games. She was vomiting constantly and couldn’t hold any food or drinks down — not even water. It meant she had to skip going to the gym for a week, but she got through it and made it to the Games.

“I just took what I had and just tried to not think about how I was feeling, just think about what I do in the gym and do it,” LeDuc said.

Each event final had eight competitors while the all-around final had 11. LeDuc finished sixth in all-around, fifth on beam and eighth on floor.

But just because LeDuc’s individual performances didn’t go as well as they could doesn’t mean she went home empty-handed.

The Philippines took third place in the women’s team competition, and LeDuc played a large role in that. She had the team’s second best all-around score with a 49.900 and the highest scores on all events besides bars.

LeDuc said she now has a lot more Filipino pride after representing the Philippines and achieving something for them. But, for Verdeflor, LeDuc did more than just give the Philippines’ success in the SEA Games.

“She made my SEA Games experience more fun,” Verdeflor said of LeDuc. “We were roommates during our stay in Singapore, and there were never boring moments with her. She was always encouraging me and the rest of our team.”

LeDuc’s experience at the SEA Games was one of the first times she competed on a team. She didn’t get to do it much while in level 10 gymnastics, and never did it as an elite — Olympic-level — gymnast for the U.S. But it was something LeDuc aspired to when she was younger.

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In 2009, LeDuc qualified to the junior elite level, beginning her quest to make a U.S. National Team. But she never made it there.

LeDuc went back to competing in level 10 in 2012 after being a U.S. elite gymnast for three years. She said the injuries sapped her drive and drained her emotionally.

“Gymnastics is really hard on your body, and it was at that point where I almost just wanted to give up,” LeDuc said. “I just needed to take a breather and do some normal things, and then it put me in perspective of how close I really am to doing something better.”

That “something better” turned out to be the Philippine National Team.

LeDuc said she enjoyed being back at level 10 but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to the elite level to help the Philippines make a name for themselves in the artistic gymnastics world. She also saw it as a “fresh start” for herself after having been a U.S. elite.

“You know certain people’s names in the U.S. and stuff like that,” LeDuc said. “But once you got outside of the country, it’s just a fresh start. You can do what you want, and it’s just more fun.”

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The 2015 World Gymnastics Championships starts Oct. 23, but Verdeflor is the only female representative for the Philippines. LeDuc won’t compete at the event and doesn’t know where she’ll go from here for the Philippine team — she’s still officially a member.

For now, though, she looks forward to being a part of the Illinois women’s gymnastics team. Aside from competing for the Philippines, she also spent the summer on campus getting familiar with her coaches and teammates, whom she already considers family.

After questioning her drive for the sport years ago, LeDuc has become of one the few gymnasts who get to compete internationally and has now rediscovered her drive as an Illinois gymnast.

“I almost feel like this is like representing another country,” LeDuc said of being an Illini. “It’s just as big to me as it was in Singapore. We’re representing the University, and we’re trying to win.”

wijangc2@dailyillini.com?

@wijangco12

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