Feb. 25, 2009
By Larry Watts
Competing in the NCAA Championships last year was "the most amazing experience of my life," according to the University of Minnesota's Carmelina Carabajal.
Although she captured 14th in the all-around competition, there was one important thing missing from her biggest moment as a Golden Gopher gymnast. There were no teammates on hand to share the experience.
"It was a bittersweet moment," the senior from Albuquerque, N.M. now says. "My team didn't make it because we placed third (top two teams advance) at the regional. The plane ride (to Athens, Ga.) was weird. I was so used to traveling with them and I caught myself a couple of times looking around for one of them to talk to.
"I rotated with the Florida team on the final day and those girls were really nice to me, but it wasn't the same. Obviously, if you train with your heart and soul with the same people every day then you're going to miss them when you're in a situation to perform in front of thousands of people."
Competing in her final season with the Golden Gophers, Carabajal is determined to punch a return ticket to the NCAA Championships. And this time she is planning on bringing plenty of company.
"My experience at nationals was amazing and gave me a whole new confidence and motivation for this year," she says. "I've brought that experience back to my team. We were close as a team last year and we're stronger this year, so I'm taking them back with me."
And the Minnesota captain is doing more than just talking a good game. Already this season, she has posted scores of 9.950 on balance beam and 9.925 on vault, scores that rank second and fourth on the Golden Gophers' all-time charts. She has also hit a career-best 39.350 in all-around on two occasions.
"I feel like I've had a good impact, but I haven't carried this team,"' she says. "Being a good leader doesn't depend on how old you are, but whether or not you are leading by example.
"When I'm in the gym, I try to focus on doing well and working as hard as I can. When I'm outside the gym having meetings with my teammates, I try to take into account everyone's feelings and say what I think will help for the betterment of the team. I want people to learn from me and use it to get even better next year."
Carabajal says there is no unusual story or historical significance behind her unique first name. "My parents just came up with it while they were on a road trip back in the '80s," she says with a laugh. "That's their story and they're sticking to it.
"My father is Hispanic and my mother is European. I identify with both sides, but since I grew up in New Mexico, there's a larger Hispanic (Mexico and Spain) influence in my background. I identify with that side of my family a lot."
Her mother was a former high school gymnast and enrolled her daughter in gymnastics at the age of 3.
"They always figured it would only last a couple of years, but I kept wanting to go back," Carabajal says. "It turned out to be a lifestyle."
One of her teammates at the Albuquerque Gymnastics School was Laura Johnson, who was three years older than Carabajal. Johnson went on to become one of the top gymnasts in Golden Gopher history and advised her coaching staff to pursue Carabajal.
"I don't think I was ever one of those gymnasts who was very good on paper when I was younger, so (Minnesota co-head coach) Jim (Stephenson) took a risk on me and I'm glad he did," says Carabajal, despite the fact she won beam, floor, vault and all-round at the state level in 2005 and twice qualified for the Junior Olympic Nationals. "I guess I was always a late bloomer. I was learning big skills at 15 and 16 that other girls had been doing since they were 10, but they saw my potential."
Carabajal says she didn't mind following Johnson's footsteps one bit. "She did great here (at Minnesota) and was always a gymnast I looked up to. It was more a matter of wanting to prove myself. I wanted to make sure she knew she did the right thing by telling the coaches about me."
With Johnson graduated, Carabajal broke out in her sophomore year to earn second team All-Big Ten honors. On her road to the NCAA Finals last year, she earned first team all-conference honors after placing fourth in all-around, tying for eighth on vault and balance beam and tying for 10th in floor exercise.
"Beam has always been my strongest event, but I don't know why," she says. "Floor and vault have always been close, but I enjoy beam more. Mentally, I think beam is harder, but because it has been such a struggle for me my entire life I enjoy it more now because I have learned to master it."
Her struggles now have been with uneven bars. She recently had to be pulled out of the lineup for the Masters Classic in Lincoln, Neb. after falling on her back during warm-ups on the bars.
"My back went into spasms and it was very scary, but it feels 100 percent now," she says. "It was just a weird fall and my back didn't like it at all."
A kinesiology major and two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, Carabajal is taking several pre-nursing classes and hoping to pursue a nursing career following graduation next semester.
"The more I learn about the body and stuff, I have a habit of self-diagnosing injuries," she says. "The trainer is always laughing at me when I do this. I have a lot of chronic stuff because I have been doing this sport for a long time, but the back injury is the first acute thing that has happened in a long time."
Carabajal says she doesn't plan to hang up all her leotards once the season is over. "I might go back in (the gym) and have some fun at times, but as far as competition goes, this is it," she says. "It's bittersweet because there have been a lot of aches and pains, but I have never done anything else in my life. I can't remember ever not being a gymnast. I played softball in one of my classes, so I might give coed softball a try."
Before enrolling in nursing school, Carabajal intends to try another new venture in her life -- getting a job. "Aside from answering a phone for three months, thanks to a friend of my father's, I've never had a real job or have had to pay taxes," she says. "I would like to get a certified nursing certificate and work in a nursing home. It would be good to get that experience before coming back to school."
It seems like a perfect scenario since the striking 5-foot-1 dynamo has been nursing along the Golden Gophers' program in her final year.