Power From Down Under
Elite Australian Gymnast Brings World-class Talent to UMD Squad
By Karen Shih ’09
PHOTO BY GREG FIUME
At age 16, Nikki Chung was among a handful of gymnasts in the world who could land a double-twisting Yurchenko vault, shown below. A round-off, back handspring off the vaulting table, twisting twice through the air, body stretched out with arms tucked in and legs straight, and bam, two feet planted on the mat.
The native of Perth was considered a lock for the 2012 Australian Olympic team. Then, on her first practice vault at the trials, she turned off the vault too early, rupturing her ACL and several ligaments in her ankle upon landing. Her estimated recovery time after surgery was one full year.
Chung had to decide: Focus full-time on gymnastics, waiting another four years for the Olympics in a sport that’s dominated by teenagers? Or put that dream to rest, concentrating on college instead?
“I realized I loved the sport and didn’t want to give it up, but I also loved studying,” she says.
The daughter of a doctor, she had always been a good student. She tried the local university for a semester, juggling that with outside training because Australia doesn’t have an NCAA-type system. Ultimately, she looked to the United States as the best way to do both. But by the time she reached out to American colleges in July 2013, she was almost too late.
“Other schools told her right off the bat, ‘This is impossible,’” says Terps gymnastics Coach Brett Nelligan. He petitioned the NCAA and appealed twice to get Chung eligible to compete, just days before the start of the school year.
Now, she’s more than 10,000 miles from home, part of a squad that has steadily improved over the last decade. Under Nelligan’s leadership, the team ranked No. 14 in the nation last year, losing the ACC championship by .075 point.
Chung’s elite competition experience is invaluable—she’s considering returning to international competition this year and hasn’t given up her Olympic dreams—and the elite skills she brings can push her teammates to reach higher.
She hasn’t yet picked a major, but she’s considering cell biology or physiology and neurobiology. Reflective and earnest, with a tendency to downplay her achievements, she reveals what she dislikes about the American system: a mandatory general education curriculum that means she has to take English, her least favorite subject. Otherwise, she’s adjusting well.
“I miss home, but it’s less hard being here, since the squad is like my new family,” she says.
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