Gymnastics has always provided first-year gymnast Haley Brechwald a creative space to learn and have fun.
“Gymnastics is a crazy sport because there is just always something new to learn,” Brechwald said. “You never really get bored or tired of it.”
She fell in love with the sport when she first took the floor as a rambunctious 3-year-old in Springfield, Virginia.
“As a little kid you see this equipment, you kind of see it as a little jungle gym. It’s so new and abstract,” Brechwald said.
Now that she’s at Pitt her idea of fun dominates the competition. In her first four meets, she has proven herself to be an elite performer, capturing three all-around titles in her first four meets.
Standing slightly over 5 feet tall with a powerful frame, Brechwald has the ideal body type of a gymnast — and she is confident in her abilities. Yet, she remains genuinely humble. Rarely mentioning her individual titles or scores she has achieved, Brechwald continually talks about personal growth and the team’s pursuit of an East Atlantic Gymnastics League conference championship.
“I’m still just trying to be the best that I can be for the team and contribute to get to where our team wants in the season,” Brechwald said. “For me it’s just about staying focused with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Brechwald set her sights on college gymnastics by the time she was in fourth grade. Soon after, in 2008, she joined Capital Gymnastics National Training Center — a club where she would train and compete year-round until 2017.
“We practiced five to six days a week depending on the year,” Brechwald said. “There were some years I did two practices a day, and the practices were very long and intense.”
Instruction from world-class coaches, like Tatiana Perskaia, made the time commitment well worth it.
As a former coach for the U.S. Gymnastics Team, and previously serving as one of three women in the country who selected the U.S. Olympic gymnastics roster, Perskaia had the background to equip Brechwald for the collegiate level.
“She put a lot of pressure on us — she had high standards for us,” Brechwald said. “It was just always important to push yourself even harder than you think you need to be pushed.”
Learning to excel in gymnastics was a constant process of building and improving upon small, detailed techniques. First learning how to properly fall in each event, Brechwald and her peers would spend hours perfecting the elements of each event above foam pits.
Beyond learning these physical skills, the intensive training helped toughen Brechwald mentally.
“[Perskaia] made me the person I am today in my gymnastics because she really built my mental toughness,” she said.
Testing herself through pressure-filled competitions, she learned to keep her composure after a poor run, maintain focus throughout each changing event and compete against top-notch talent.
Yet, once Brechwald left the gym, she returned to the normal life of a kid. Without the community-wide recognition of sports like football, soccer and basketball, Brechwald’s gymnastics career was often a mystery to her peers.
No one else in her school was involved with Capital Gymnastics National Training Center or even understood how gymnastics works. She said gymnastics was almost a separate life.
“You compete at such a high level, but nobody really knows what you do … they either think you’re a cheerleader or going to the Olympics,” Brechwald said. “So there’s never really any in-between.”
While club gymnastics was sometimes an isolating experience in high school, she was excited for the community and team atmosphere of collegiate gymnastics.
“Club, you really only compete as an individual,” Brechwald said. “I really was looking forward to being part of a team, for once, in college.”
She first found herself on the Panthers’ radar while attending one of Pitt’s gymnastics camps during her junior year of high school. The Panthers gave her a scholarship offer after attending a few of her meets after the camp, and Brechwald pounced at the chance to become a Panther.
“Pitt was my top choice — it’s always been Pitt for me,” Brechwald said.
Head coach Samantha Snider took notice of Brechwald’s impact as a leader immediately after she joined the team.
“It says a lot for a freshman to come in and have such a big impact as a leader,” Snider said. “She’s a leader in the gym not only from her gymnastics experience but really all of those intangible things like leadership, focus and positivity.”
Gymnasts ultimately perform independently once they get to meets, but teammates play a vital role instilling confidence in each other as they prepare. Brechwald understands this and said she tries to consistently stay upbeat and maintain positive attitudes amongst her teammates.
“Even though she’s a freshman, she’s a role model to everybody on the team and she brings something that nobody else does,” senior gymnast Catie Conrad said. “She pushes me and I push her, and that’s what teammates do.”
With Brechwald and Conrad at the forefront, the Panthers are looking to end the year ranked in the top-25 nationwide and perform well at the NCAA Regional Championship. Right now, their average all-around score is ranked 38th in the country.
For Brechwald, she’s not striving for any specific scores, but rather small, technical improvements in each event for every meet.
Regardless of where the Panthers end up this season, one thing is for certain — Pitt gymnastics has a star in Brechwald.
“She has the capability to break almost every record that’s been set here at Pitt for each event and the all-around,” Snider said.
Max Sirianni contributed reporting.