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November 22, 2014

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It’s over, but what a way to go

Ron Kantowski finds collegiate gymnast Tasha Schwikert looking for a new challenge as she retires from competition.

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COURTESY UCLA

Last weekend was a winning one for UCLA gymnast Tasha Schwikert, who scored her second NCAA all-around championship and the title in the uneven bars. Schwikert, 23, says she’s ready to leave the sport.

Schwikert racks up championships

Tasha Schwikert of Las Vegas completed her college gymnastics career by winning the NCAA all-around championship at the University of Georgia last week. Here’s a look back at her UCLA career and her accomplishments as a member of the U.S. National Team:

  • 2008: NCAA champion in the all-around and uneven bars. Narrowly missed a third national championship by finishing second to Georgia’s Courtney McCool, who, like Schwikert, is a former Olympian, in floor exercise.
  • 2007: NCAA runner-up in the uneven bars. Pac-10 gymnast of the year.
  • 2006: Missed most of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
  • 2005: NCAA all-around champion.

Team USA: Captained the 2003 U.S. World Championship team, which won the gold medal at the World Championships. Member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team and an alternate at the 2004 Games. Two-time U.S. national all-around champion (2001, 2002). Earned a team bronze medal at the 2001 World Championships. Six-time national champion. Will be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in June.

Personal: Daughter of Shannon Warren and Joy Schwikert. Attended Centennial High School. Attended UCLA with her sister Jordan, who also is an NCAA All-American gymnast. Admires Olympic gold medalist Catalina Ponor of Romania and her club coach, Cassie Rice of the Las Vegas Gymcats.

With all due respect to Brett Favre and Roger Clemens and what they accomplished in their careers, most athletes would prefer to go out the way Tasha Schwikert did at last week’s NCAA gymnastics championships.

The former Olympian from Las Vegas finished her UCLA career with a spectacular flourish, winning her second NCAA all-around championship. Then she posted a 9.9 on the uneven bars to win that title, too.

They don’t give 9.9s for throwing interceptions in championship games on frozen tundra or providing vague testimony at congressional hearings.

“Pretty exciting,” Schwikert said in a nutshell assessment of her final competitive meet.

It was really exciting considering that on the day before the meet, she thought her career was more likely to end in the trainer’s room at the University of Georgia than on the top step on the victory podium. The Achilles injury that has been giving her problems virtually from the day her mom brought her home from the hospital was acting up again. On top of that, she had a nasty cold.

On podium day, which is to gymnastics what batting practice is to baseball, she couldn’t even turn a simple somersault without wincing in pain.

“It wasn’t the smoothest ride,” said Schwikert, who missed winning a third national championship by one one-hundreth of a point, finishing second in the floor exercise. “I wasn’t able to tumble and I was concerned about whether it (my ankle) would hold up over the weekend.”

Then she went out and hit every routine as if it were ... well, a batting practice fastball.

After clearing a space on the mantel for her bazillionth trophy and gold medal, Schwikert announced her retirement from competitive gymnastics — not at a news conference as they do in football or baseball, but on a cell phone as she tooled around the San Fernando Valley in her car.

“This is it,” Schwikert said with little fanfare. “It’s been a very long road, to be honest. It hasn’t hit me yet, but I know I’m gonna miss it.”

What, no comeback? What if somebody like Pamela Anderson wanted to sponsor her?

A few years back, when Schwikert was still on the national team, Anderson (who has been known to do a few floor exercises of her own) wrote a $20,000 check so Mohini Bhardwaj, who also starred for UCLA, could train for the Athens Olympics. Bhardwaj was closing in on her 26th birthday, which, in gymnastics years, made her older than a pair of Mary Lou Retton’s tights.

“No, I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life,” she said.

What about Cirque de Soleil? She could come home and make a good living by doing tumbling runs in a showroom full of tourists. Even sleep in her old bed, if she wanted.

Uh-uh. She likes her apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She likes being on her own (although her sister Joy, also an All-American gymnast at UCLA, lives on the same floor).

Schwikert said she saw “Le Reve,” the Cirque-ish production at Wynn Las Vegas, with her UCLA teammates after a meet in Las Vegas during the holidays. Impressive performances. Impressive costumes. Impressive night out.

But not the career for her.

“No, I’m definitely finished,” she said. “I’m still a young woman, 23. It seems like a good time to turn over a new leaf. I’m ready for a new challenge. There are new things I want to learn.”

Specifically, she wants to learn about TV sports. When she was forced to sit out most of her sophomore season after shoulder surgery, she did color and voice-over on broadcasts of UCLA meets. She’s also done promotional work for Fox Sports, so she has a foot — not the one with the bum Achilles — in the door.

But before she totally rinses the chalk from her hands and unwraps her ankle for the last time, there’s one more gymnastics-related event on her calendar.

On June 22, Schwikert and her 2003 U.S. World Championship gold medal-winning teammates — Terin Humphrey, Courtney Kupets, Chellsie Memmel, Hollie Vise and alternates Annia Hatch and Ashley Postell — will be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

“I’m superexcited,” Schwikert said. “When I first heard, I said, ‘I don’t get it,’ because I’m so young. With that said, in a sport where you peak at 15 or 16, 23 is considered an old woman in gymnastics.”

So call it her Lifetime Achievement Award. After years and years and years of 9.9s, Tasha Schwikert’s gymnastics career will end with a perfect 10 during a luncheon at the Marriott in downtown Philadelphia.

Even a judge from the old East Germany would have to stand and applaud.

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