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Verdeflor: From International Athlete to Nittany Lion

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By Maria Evangelou, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Ava Verdeflor did not grow up like the rest of her Penn State teammates. After spending the first three years of her life in the Phillipines, Verdeflor and her family moved to the United States, where the bulk of the now-freshman's gymnastics career would take off. Despite the move at a young age, she would often return to the Philippines, where the dual-citizen would compete in gymnastics for both of the countries she called home.

 For Verdeflor,who lived in Allen, Texas for the majority of her life, balancing a gymnastics career in two countries can be a challenge, but is also rewarding.

"There's a significant difference between the gymnastics program in the Philippines and the U.S.," Verdeflor said. "Girls here can get scholarships out of this and go to college out of this, but in the Philippines, you do it just because you want to."

Ava truly loved the sport growing up, but admits she didn't expect to be competing internationally and for the Philippines. All of her siblings were talented gymnasts, but Ava truly excelled. When it came time to send them to college, the tuition cost to fund three athletes of the same family was too high, so her siblings sought out other sports, while gymnastics was Ava's sole focus.  It was her parents' idea for her to go onto the Philippines national team.

My parents put a lot of effort into me succeeding in the sport," Verdeflor said on the encouragement they provided. "I truly wouldn't be where I am today without them. All of my accomplishments are theirs as much as mine."

"Coming from WOGA (World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Texas), the coaches are strict," Verdeflor said on training in both countries. "Over in the Philippines, it was kind of a free for all, the coaches offer more suggestions. It was weird having that drastic change from always listening and being told what to do, and being told I can do whatever I want. It kind of helped me. At WOGA, my coach Natasha raised me. She was what I needed when I was younger, telling me what to do, she helped me develop my gymnastics, and that's why my technique and my form is the way it is. Cecile (in the Phillipines) was the coach I could talk to and go to when I needed advice. I was extremely close with both of them, but there's a different need in each side."

Since her qualification, Verdeflor has travelled to the Philippines to compete twice, with her mother as her companion.  She competes individually as an international gymnast, and has competed in the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships in Scotland.

"My international experience was really fun, especially being able to compete in China, Uzbekistan, and Scotland," Verdeflor said. "But I went there as an individual, not with a team, so I was by myself most of the time. I didn't go with my coaches from club since they had other gymnasts on the U.S. team. The experience helped me grow a lot. It was a lot of fun but very nerve-wracking on an international stage knowing that so many people were watching--like people from the Philippines. Apparently, I had a fan base, I didn't even know I had a fan base! I was in the news and newspapers, and it was a little weird for me, because in the U.S. I'm just a level ten gymnast, but over there I'm THE gymnast."

Verdeflor credits her unique skills and attention to precision to her international competition experience.

 "After competing internationally, I know the importance of cleanliness. Every single detail in elite--if you flex your foot just barely, that's a tenth of a point off," she said.  "So, I try to look at the details, and how I present myself, like smiling at the judges and showing that you enjoy what you're doing."

While she knows the imprortance of cleanliness, Penn State head coach Sarah Brown has also noticed a creativity. 

"What I've noticed first and foremost about Ava is her creativity. If you even watch down to the way that she does her makeup, she's an artist," Brown said.  "Anytime she writes something, it's in the most beautiful penmanship, anytime she decorates something, it's extravagant. She is incredibly artistic, so I think that's the most unique characteristic that she brings to this team and I learn about more the more I get to know her."

Her success, cleanliness, and creativity would eventually lead to a commitment to compete as a Nittany Lion.

When it was time to commit to a college career her sophomore year, Verdeflor's talents allowed her to seek Penn State as an option to continue her gymnastics career --with a slight push from fellow Texas gymnast, close friend, and Nittany Lion Tess McCracken.

Ava and Tess had grown up together, and knew each other since they were six and seven years old. Both level tens at same time. The two competed together for years, but got much closer during high school.

"Getting to compete with your best friend is amazing," McCracken said. "I committed to Penn State as a sophomore, and she was competing with the Philippine team. When she started looking at colleges, I knew that Penn State had a spot and was interested in her."

McCracken emphasized that she wanted her friend to make the best decision for herself, but also not to pick Penn State strictly because of her encouragement. Fortunately, Ava ended up falling in love with the Nittany Lion atmosphere on her own. Ava even coincidentally took over her friend's exact dorm room her freshman year.

"The education was huge," Verdeflor said on what brought her to Happy Valley. "Penn State has such a reputation for education. I actually wasn't looking at Penn State at first until Tess told me that the coaches were interested in me, and when I came and had a visit here I fell in love with the place, and that means a lot because I hate the cold. My friends always saw me at a city school as opposed to a college town, but now that I'm here, I can't imagine myself anywhere else. I've connected so much with the coaches and the team, I just love it here."

While the excitement of committing was there, just prior to graduating high school, Verdeflor faced the most heartbreaking point of her career when she tore her ACL twice, back-to-back within a year of each other.

"I was devastated, but I knew I could come out of it stronger," Verdeflor said. "I knew something would have to happen eventually in my career, I can't go through my entire career without getting injured. I thought I'd come back my senior year and showcase what I had, but I had that taken away from me too. But I came out of that stronger too, and now I'm here at Penn State. Getting that exhibition spot and competing for the first time in over two years for Penn State, something I'd been dreaming about for three years since I committed, it was such a relief." 

Althoguh she had recent injuries, coach Brown saw potential in Verdeflor immediately, despite getting to know her later than some of the other freshmen. Since Verdeflor didn't participate in the traditional summer bridge program that most freshman student-athletes do prior to their season starting, Brown got to experience Ava's talents more recently.

"She and I had spoken on the phone and met many times before, but she got here and we weren't exactly sure where she'd make a contribution," Brown said. "She had been battling some injuries and we wanted to make sure that we got her healthy first and foremost. It is 100% apparent that she has beautiful lines on bars and beam in particular, and I think that she's proven in the last few competitions that she's very consistent. This past weekend she followed a fall, which I think is huge for a freshman to step up on the very first event and hit a routine after someone fell, so I'm becoming more and more reliant on her and looking forward to a very bright future."

Verdeflor is excited for her bright future, but also knows she still has a freshman year to go. 

"For the rest of my freshman year, I want to continue contributing to the rest of the team," Verdeflor said. "I want to help on and off of the competition floor. I've been training beam also, and I'm hoping to go out there and do well."

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