Many girls growing up have the dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast.
Many girls, myself included, grew up idolizing gymnasts dressed in colorful leotards who flipped, jumped and swung their way into glory.
These gymnasts motivated and inspired us to become powerful women and if anything--we wished to become just like them one day, representing our country and holding up that medal on the podium.
For Christine Peng Peng Lee (known as simply "Peng"), this dream became a reality in 2012 when she became an honorary captain of the Canadian National Team at the London Olympics.
But it wasn't an easy path getting there.
Self-doubt, a series of life-threatening injuries and the constant fear of failing to achieve success plagued her career as an elite level international gymnast who had won medals in competitions such as the Pacific Rim Championships and Pan American Games.
After forfeiting her career as a professional athlete, Peng had a different vision in regards to gymnastics, and it looked promising—a spot in the #1 nationally ranked UCLA Women's Gymnastics Team.
It was just what she wanted to pursue, and the extra boost of motivation she needed.
And during her time at UCLA, Lee achieved more than what any collegiate athlete could only dream about. Nine-time All American, NCAA National Champion, 2018 Pac-12 Co-Woman of the Year/Gymnastics Scholar-Athlete of the Year and 2017 Pac-12 Specialist of the Year are only a few of the accomplishments she's achieved, the list goes on and on.
Not only is she one of the most decorated athletes to have competed for UCLA, but she is also known and will forever be remembered as being one of the few gymnasts who has achieved a record perfect 10 score not once, not twice but a staggering 10 times. A score of 10 is the highest score one can achieve in any event in gymnastics. A score of 10, means that the choreography was impeccable, there were no deductions or penalties and overall suggests a level of perfection which is nearly impossible to achieve in such an acrobatic and detail oriented sport.
I recently had the chance to give an exclusive interview with Peng— to share her key success behind a Perfect 10, life at UCLA, the importance of leadership and why she believes winning shouldn't always define the athlete you become.
1. From what years did you attend UCLA? Prior to attending UCLA, where did you grow up?
I attended UCLA between the years of 2012-2018 on a full athletic scholarship. I was born and raised in Canada—specifically Scarborough, Ontario which is basically Toronto.
2. A recent LA Times Article reported that you were already poised to become a promising national athlete by age 10, training to qualify for the Canadian Olympic Team. You mentioned in the same interview that you contemplated about quitting early in your career after facing a series of life threatening injuries. What were some motivating factors that helped you jump back to your feet and continue achieving your dreams?
My biggest dream growing up was to compete at the Olympic Games. I actually briefly quit gymnastics at 7 years old to try different sports and pursue my passion for singing. But during that summer, I went back to gymnastics only to absolutely fall in love with the sport all over again. I experienced so many injuries early on in my career which was very scary and real to me at such a young age—for example, I faced numerous back injuries which was causing my spine to slip, almost permanently paralyzing me in high school.
But I would have to say that my parents were a key motivating factor during my recovery periods, because they always gave me perspective. They helped me become such a strong all around person, because they said my success in gymnastics shouldn't completely define who I am as a person. My teammates also constantly pushed me to motivate myself, to be healthy and become a better leader. The team truly felt like a family and their support was a huge factor as to why I continued achieving my dreams.
3. You held numerous prestigious titles during your time as a professional gymnast, such as Honorary Captain of the 2012 Canadian Olympic Team, three time medalist at the Pacific Rim Champions and gold medalist at the 2012 World Cup in Croatia. After stepping down from international spotlight, why did you make the decision to move all the way to UCLA to compete as a collegiate athlete?
It's a funny story how I ended up attending UCLA. Prior to my freshman year, I had absolutely no idea what UCLA was, let alone what college gymnastics was, either. In Canada, we don't have collegiate level gymnastics—it's usually the Elite (National Team) or nothing. One of my former Canadian teammates, Elise Hopkin who had attended UCLA told me about her experience here which led me to travel to Westwood to check out the campus. I absolutely fell in love with the spirit of UCLA Athletics and the plentiful resources here so I eventually verbally committed and received a full scholarship. I arrived at UCLA on crutches, still recovering from injuries so I, unfortunately, couldn't start competing until my third year. But the American college experience seemed like a life-changing opportunity which wasn't as demanding/cutthroat as the Olympics and since I'm interested in pursuing a career in entertainment, Los Angeles was the perfect choice for me.
4. The UCLA Women’s Gymnastics team is known for being one of the best Division 1 Programs in the NCAA, recently ranked number 1 in the nation and home to fellow Olympians such as Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross and Madison Kochan. How would you describe your experience training with these girls—was there a lot of competition and if so, how were you able to distinguish yourself from the rest of the team to truly stand out?
I think that the main difference between the Olympics and college gymnastics is that everyone begins at the same start value. Just because you went to the Olympics, it doesn't necessarily mean you will succeed equally in the NCAA competition. You won't get high scores just by simply throwing in a special move into your choreography/routine. That being said, it's crucial to find your rhythm in the college world which was probably my biggest mental hurdle—I constantly felt as if I wasn't where I wanted to be at my level. But that's where teammates come into play, to help lift you up and help believe in yourself. I personally believe UCLA does a wonderful job bringing you out as a person, not simply as an athlete. I didn't have to be a robotic gymnast to be recognized here, and I completely support this philosophy of helping athletes become better people in and out of the competition.
5. Throughout your time as a collegiate athlete, you scored a record career perfect 10 score in 10 separate occasions. This was a huge contributing factor which led the UCLA team to win the 2018 NCAA National Championship title. What are some lessons did you get out of this experience of striving for perfection?
For me, competing wasn't all about winning, it was about enjoying yourself. During the 2018 NCAA National Championships, right before my last routine on the Beam, I said to Ms. Val [UCLA Gymnastics Head Coach] that I'm just going to get out there to enjoy doing my routine. It was so emotional for me upon finishing that landing that I, along with the rest of the team, began crying even though we didn't exactly know whether we had won or not. But when my score was announced [a career perfect 10 on the beams] and we were announced as National Champions, it was just a whole new wind of emotions.
Some lessons that I got out of this experience was to do what makes you happy and more importantly, lead others to do the same. Since I had spent so many years as a member of the team, I was kind of like a "mom" figure to everyone, and I still text/call some of the girls to stay in touch. My experiences taught me the value of leadership, and to always become a better leader to your team and keep your head high.
6. Please briefly describe your time attending UCLA as a student-athlete. What was it like balancing academics with your gymnastics competitions? How did you find your motivation to excel in both fields?
Personally, freshman year was the hardest for me especially because of my lack of time management skills. Mainly, the cultural difference was hard to adjust to also because I wasn't used to the stereotype that college athletes are in their own world. Since student-athletes spend so much time with other student-athletes, training/conditioning together and competing together, there is undeniably a visible athlete and non-athlete divide on campus. Because there aren't a lot of international athletes like me, it was also a lot of figuring out things on my own when it came to things such as visas, paperwork, taxes, etc. More or less, it was a great learning experience for me and I enjoyed having the opportunity to compete as a collegiate athlete, specifically at UCLA.
7. The UCLA Women’s Gymnastics coach Valerie Kondos Field (known as "Ms Val” to everyone on the team) recently announced her retirement after the 2019 season. How was she an influential person to your milestone career here at UCLA and do you have a message you would want her to tell her?
I have actually known Ms. Val since I was 10 years old. She was the one who recruited me onto the team despite my injuries and throughout my time here, always checked in on me. I would have to say that she is a very honest and verbal person—if something is wrong, she is very blunt. Her influence was a huge part of my college career which helped me become a leader and proudly display my strength.
A message I would love to send to her is that I'm so very proud of her and her accomplishments and to thank her for being such a great role model—going after her own dreams and goals as a coach and to bring people along with her through that journey. She used to always tell me that the world is mine and that I was capable of the things I wanted to achieve as a gymnast while becoming a better leader as well. She is an incredible person, and I can only hope to become a supportive and influential person as she was to me.