Sabrina Vega’s heart began to hurt as she silenced her alarm at 7 a.m. Friday. There were no medical issues, nor did an early wake-up call stray from the routine.
It was meet day as Georgia readied to open NCAA Regionals competition, and gymnasts had to receive permission from head coach Courtney Kupets Carter if they wanted to attend class. That’s not because Kupets Carter doesn’t care about academics, of course, but because she wanted to treat it like a GymDogs’ away meet in every fashion possible.
Georgia had a team meeting at 9:30 a.m. and a treatment session at noon before the festivities commence. There wasn’t the expected jubilation of “Yay! A day off of school” that many students have found joy in since the elementary school days of finding their public school system across a list of weather closings on local television.
“I had to skip class, and man I really do love going to school,” Vega said after learning there was no opening in the schedule. “On meet days, I’m athlete-student, but on other days I’m student-athlete.”
The athlete part of the hyphenated term is one that thousands of fans across the country have seen for years. As a former World Champion and near Olympian, all of the gymnastics die-hards are in awe of Vega’s performances. She showed it again Friday afternoon as a 9.9 on vault, 9.925 on beam and a 9.975 on floor (which included a perfect 10 from two judges) paced Georgia to a 197.300 to open postseason competition. The GymDogs beat Kentucky, Missouri and Iowa State to advance to Saturday’s regional final (7 p.m., SEC Network +).
For a gymnast who almost didn’t compete collegiately, Vega’s academic aspirations and expectations are equally as lofty. She is a biology major, public health minor and is set on attending medical school. That’s all while being named SEC Specialist of the Year and earning two World Gymnastics Coaches’ Association (WGCA) honors.
“I’m big on learning, and there are certain days where you’ll catch me and I might say ‘I hate school so much,’” Vega said. “That’s probably because I have a lot of homework or had no idea what the teacher was saying.”
She’s mastered a routine and epitomizes balance. As many people have their downtime in the evenings, Vega takes hers in the mornings with her beloved dog, Loki (who recently celebrated his first birthday after Vega adopted him through the Athens Humane Society last May). Vega doesn’t have any roommates, so she cherishes her “me time” on the couch around 8 a.m. before beginning a busy day filled with classes, tutoring and practice — some of the basic demands of a student-athlete in which a majority of outsiders may not grasp.
It’s then off to class, and there’s not much time for Vega to breathe other than a few seconds to digest some lunch. She calls everything “down to the minute,” in fact, as her transitions between classes and practice are each in 15-minute windows. That’s with two upper-level sciences intertwined into her class load, and Vega understandably arrives late for pre-practice availabilities if there’s an exam. An iPhone planner app serves as Vega’s hero and reminds her of numerous obligations.
After a lengthy gymnastics practice and occasional tutoring appointments, Vega returns home and studies for the rest of the night. An opportunity to sleep then arises, and then the cycle begins once more. Somehow, there’s time for team bonding, relationships, family and a few more minutes with Loki mixed into that schedule.
“She’s done a much better job this year than last with balancing it,” Kupets Carter said. “There were a lot of late nights, early mornings and we have asked her to eliminate those. She has done a great job, and is really into the swing of things knowing there’s a high expectation in the gym and with her schoolwork.”
Some of Vega’s teammates have rigorous majors as well, including freshmen Rachel Baumann (intended Management Information Systems) and Rachael Lukacs (Criminal Justice), but none of those compare to a desire to enter the medical field. Vega plans to take an extra semester at Georgia to raise some grades in harder classes, then take the MCAT and enroll in medical school — preferably staying in-state or returning home to New York.
All of the other GymDogs couldn’t imagine taking on such a balance. Lukacs’ response, for one, didn’t require words. She turned toward Vega, and waved her arms up-and-down. All hail queen Sabrina.
“God bless. I look at some of her stuff and say ‘Sab, what does that even mean?’” Lukacs said. “I just let her do her thing. Not many students, let alone athletes, can do what she’s doing right now. She’s getting 10s on floor, being a beast on beam and vault and hitting the books like no one else. She’s going after that biology, med, or whatever it is. She’s a beast at everything.”
Vega can’t pinpoint where the desires came from. As a child growing up in Carmel, New York, she wanted to become a police officer. Well, at least for a quick minute.
“Honey, you know it is pretty dangerous to be a police officer, right?” Vega recalled her mother, Jahaira Vega asking.
“OK, forget it,” Vega responded.
From that moment, it was always between a veterinarian or a doctor for Vega. She has a quirky obsession for watching videos of surgeries — a step further than the trend of people watching pimples being popped — and can become glued to an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” or anything similar.
Vega won’t be deterred from swapping out the leotard for a set of scrubs in the near future. Bring on all of the biologies, physics and chemistries possible.
“It’s kind of funny, because you see people who want to be some sort of science major,” Vega said. “Then, you take your first science class and 90 percent of the people say ‘I’m out of here.’ Although it was pretty hard and science made for a ridiculous amount of hours for studying, I still loved it.”
Vega’s balance is one that doesn’t seem very feasible, but this GymDog leader is excelling in both areas. Once on the floor, the easily-recognizable artistic gymnast shows that an equal-or-lesser focus on the sport can bring exceptional results.
That was shown again as two judges raised a perfect score after Vega’s floor routine. A quieter-than-normal Stegeman Coliseum crowd erupted, Vega had another chance to display ferocious emotion and close out a postseason win that extended Georgia’s season.
In that moment, any heartache went away and it was one of few acceptable trade-offs.
“It’s all about what you’re putting in the gym and it’ll come out in the meet,” Vega said. “Those moments make everything worth it, and my mentality isn’t necessarily for me anymore. It’s about putting up that score for my team. That gives me more joy.”