Ute gymnastics: All-around better
Utah's Daria Bijak wanted to make her senior year her best year. So she played tennis to prepare for the 2010 season.
The training was unorthodox for sure, particularly for gymnasts, who normally spend long hours in the gym working skills again and again to succeed in the precision-demanding sport.
But after enduring years of landings, twists, and turns -- which caused numerous chronic injuries -- Bijak decided the best thing she could do for herself was let her body heal rather than keep pushing it.
As opposed to staying in Utah during the summer to train, Bijak went home to Germany, where she participated in a lot of activities such as tennis and running, but stayed away from the gym.
So far, it seems her odd way of training is paying off.
Bijak, who will lead the No. 6 Utes against rival Georgia on Friday, is in the best shape of her collegiate career.
"I feel much better," she said. "I barely have any problems with my knees. I still have other injuries and every week something new seems to happen, like always, but this year has been different. It's better and easier to train."
Bijak stands as one of the best examples of the toll the sport of gymnastics takes on gymnasts. Between training for national events in Germany and international competitions, she never took more than a few days off prior to joining the Utes in 2007. She mostly competed on the bars and beam her freshman year because of overuse injuries and a November knee surgery which limited her.
She couldn't afford to take time off after the 2007 season because she participated in the 2008 Olympics. Most of her injuries were healed by the 2009 season, when she earned All-America status in the all-around, floor and bars.
After the season, she knew she needed a break, mentally and physically.
"Over the years, I've been injured so many times I've learned I can be out of the gym for a couple weeks and jump back into it and be pretty good," she said. "I've never done that for four months though, so I was a little nervous."
Utah coach Greg Marsden normally might worry if one of his gymnasts spent so much time away from the gym, but wasn't concerned about Bijak.
"With Daria, you just have to know her," he said. "She is such a mature, self-directed athlete. We weren't concerned with her getting out of shape. It was really good to let her body heal up, and she came back in great shape. She didn't lose much at all and has been much healthier in the preseason."
Being in good shape is important for any gymnast, but particularly for Bijak. Her skills aren't so much about finesse as they are conquering the apparatus. Her routines are often rated among the most difficult in the country.
She is believed to be the only collegiate gymnast competing a handspring front layout vault, and her first tumbling pass on floor of handspring double front, punch front, is unique.
"To be able to spend as much time as she did at home and not lose anything was really good," Marsden said. "We're still starting with some simpler routines, especially on floor and bars, and adding difficulty as the season goes on."
Bijak's elbows and shoulders still bother her some, but she is accustomed to competing with aches and pains. She manages those nagging issues by limiting her training.
"I've learned how to do that," she said. "I know I have days where I can't tumble at all, so when I have a good day, I want to do everything. I don't really have a plan. If I feel good, I try to do everything. If I feel bad, I do less."
Bijak, a six-time All-American, is one of four seniors on the 2010 squad. However, she has been designated by Marsden as the leader on the floor because of her past success.
It's an unfamiliar position for her, but one she is ready to accept.
"I try to focus on myself and do as good as I can," she said. "If that means leading the team, then I can do that."
» Senior; 5-foot-2
» From Cologne, Germany
» 6-time All-American
» Utah's 2008 Most Improved Gymnast
» 4th in 2008 German National Championships
» Has hit 134 out of 143 routines in her career
All-Around » 39.55
Vault » 9.9. Floor » 9.925
Uneven bars » 9.925
Balance beam » 9.925
No. 10 Georgia at No. 6 Utah
Friday, 7 p.m.
TV » Ch. 4, The Mtn.