San Jose State gymnast Katie Valleau on the rise
Originally published in San Jose Mercury News April 13, 2011
By Elliott Almond
San Jose State’s Katie Valleau didn’t take her coach seriously when he set a goal to qualify for the NCAA gymnastics championships this season.
Who could blame her?
Only four Spartans had qualified for the national championships in the 42-year history of the program.
Now, Valleau makes it five after a surprising performance on the floor exercise last week at a regional meet in Corvallis, Ore.
Valleau, 21, is the country’s only single-event qualifier in the floor routine after scoring a season-high 9.9 out of 10 to share the regional title with two Oregon State gymnasts.
The former walk-on from a San Diego YMCA will go against Olympians, budding Olympians and other decorated gymnasts when competing Friday night in the NCAA preliminaries in Cleveland.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” said Spartans coach Wayne Wright, the man who preached they could reach the championships. “Honestly, it doesn’t happen like this.”
To put it into perspective, Stanford, ranked fourth nationally this season, won’t be represented in Cleveland. The Cardinal’s roster includes a 2008 Australian Olympian, two members from Canada’s national team, a 2004 U.S. Olympic alternate and a Czech senior national team member.
Valleau (pronounced Val-low) realizes how much her performance can help San Jose State, a small-budget program that strives to compete on the national stage.
“As a team we’re really good, and not many people know that,” she said. “We are in the shadows. I hope this gives us respect and gives us a little more leeway in the scoring next year.”
In other words, reputations matter in a subjective sport with judges. Wright has been trying to overcome perceptions during his decade-long tenure at San Jose State. Valleau is his fourth gymnast to advance to the NCAA championships.
Valleau landed at San Jose State after soliciting a handful of California schools with gymnastics programs. Only Wright and a Cal State Fullerton coach replied.
Few showed interest because Valleau didn’t train at an elite club, and didn’t compete in all four disciplines — balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars and vault. Valleau, whose mother was a professional Hawaiian hula dancer, had gravitated to the sport’s dance-oriented floor routines.
She enrolled at the local Y at age 5 after impressing her parents on monkey bars. Valleau trained only 15 hours a week, allowing her to maintain an active social life.
“We wanted her to live a well-rounded life,” father Peter Valleau said.
Valleau attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, studying dance from sixth grade through high school. She attended proms and participated in school activities, an unusual path for most top gymnasts.
The low-intensity gym at the Y, however, didn’t prevent Valleau from excelling under Wright.
She tied for second place on the floor at the Western Athletic Conference championships two weeks ago. Then the coach added a few new wrinkles in her program for the regional meet.
“Wayne said, ‘Put in everything you can; cheese it up,’ ” Valleau recalled.
Valleau’s extra flair impressed the judges. The event winners at each regional advanced in their discipline, if they weren’t part of a qualifying team or one of the all-around (gymnasts who perform the four routines) qualifiers.
Valleau now will try to finish in the top four in floor exercise Friday for a chance to compete Sunday for an NCAA title.
For Wright she’s already a winner.
“If I had to stop doing gymnastics tomorrow, I would go out knowing I’m at the top,” he said.