After being told she was too old, Caleigh England now competes nationally
Like many of us, Caleigh England emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns wanting to take her life in a new direction.
For the University Park teenager, that meant leaving behind her accomplishments as a dancer and musical theater performer to pursue gymnastics full-time — at an elite level.
Less than two years later, England was one of the oldest yet least experienced gymnasts at the prestigious USA Gymnastics Level 8 regional tournament on April 10 in Colorado, where she scored well on both floor exercise and vault.
Her quarantine decision defied common sense, or at least that’s what some of England’s coaches told her. In a sport where most competitors are retired by their mid-20s, she was too old at 15 to transition from a recreational Xcel gymnast to the Junior Olympics optional levels.
“Changing from Xcel to optionals was a challenging decision. I knew it was going to be really hard,” England said. “I wanted to see where it would take me. I wanted to push myself.”
She quit dancing and acting and ramped up her gymnastics training from six to more than 30 hours per week at Zenith Gymnastics in McKinney.
It was still an uphill battle, but England found inspiration in her new coach, Tammy DeGuzman, a former athlete on the Philippines national team who didn’t start competing until she was 14. Still, despite her ambition and work ethic, England initially questioned her decision.
“My first day, I couldn’t do the conditioning. I never wanted to come back,” she said. “I was way behind the other girls. It was hard seeing a bunch of 12-year-olds having harder skills than I did.”
England never earned a medal in her first season competing at the optional level. It was more than a year before she caught up.
When the current season opened in January, England medaled twice in her first meet. After that, she was the runner-up on floor exercise at an event in Orlando, Florida.
“I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it,” said England, a sophomore who attends an online high school. “Last summer, I got as many skills as I could.”
Then she placed on both floor and balance beam — usually, her weakest event — at the USAG state meet in Lubbock, which qualified her for the season-ending regional showcase.
As she enters another rigorous offseason training regimen, England’s goal is to advance to USAG Level 10 by the time she graduates and continue to prove doubters wrong.
“I hope to inspire older girls. If they want to join optionals, it’s not too late,” England said. “They have to work twice as hard, but they will get there.”