Makenna Damhorst, a star athlete from Scotts Valley, celebrates her acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania’s Division 1 Gymnastics Team after overcoming challenges at UCLA. (Contributed)

Scotts Valley’s Makenna Damhorst has taken a tumble or two in her life, and the star athlete is planning to put her gymnastic prowess to use as she joins the University of Pennsylvania (U Penn) Division 1 Gymnastics Team this fall.

Damhorst was originally considered for a walk-on position by UCLA’s D1 Gymnastics Team after she was admitted to the school in 2023. Unfortunately, days before she was set to start school, UCLA announced that they had chosen another gymnast for the spot on their team.

Damhorst had already committed to UCLA admissions, so she decided to make the best of her situation.

In order to stay in shape for gymnastics, Damhorst tried out for the UCLA D1 Rowing Team. The tryout process lasted two months and out of 100 competitors, she made one of the four spots open to walk-ons.

Rowing practices at 5:30am in Marina del Rey became her new normal, along with continuing to practice gymnastics in the evenings with UCLA’s club gymnastics team. With the candle firmly lit at both ends, something had to give; she decided to stop rowing and focus all her effort on gymnastics.

Undeterred by these setbacks, Damhorst continued to reach out to D1 gymnastics teams across the country until she received an email from U Penn that they might be interested. During this timeframe, she was competing for the UCLA club gymnastics team and helped them win two national titles in Albuquerque, N.M., last April with a first place on bars and a first place in the all-around.

As a result, Damhorst was voted Athlete of the Year for the UCLA Gymnastics Club Team.

After spending months performing gymnastic auditions via video for U Penn, Damhorst was offered a spot on their team in May of this year, and she couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was 3 years old, and I started in the Level 2 competitive program at Santa Cruz Gymnastics around age 7,” Damhorst said.

Makenna Damhorst is excited to join the University of Pennsylvania’s Division 1 Gymnastics Team this fall after a journey filled with determination and perseverance. (Contributed)

Competitive gymnastics boasts a range of levels from 1-10, and Damhorst knew she had to make it to Level 10 since it is the standard for D1 collegiate gymnastics. Damhorst, who has competed in vault, bars, beam and floor, found something energizing in rowing.

“Setting out on the water with the stars still overhead as darkness gives way to dawn was such an unforgettable way to start the day. I saw dolphins, a sea lion, and so many incredible sunrises,” Damhorst said. “I made so many amazing friends who are driven and dedicated, and it was a joy training with them every day and going out on the water before sunrise.”

The girl who vaulted her way onto the U Penn team gives all the praise to her many coaches.

“There have been so many inspiring and kind people on my journey that it’s hard to name just one coach. The best advice I received was the idea that we are capable of ‘rising to the occasion.’ Even if a task seemed much more than I was capable of, I was taught to take the first step in getting it done and not stop until it was finished,” Damhorst said. “I’ve since appreciated the idea of rising to the challenge and using daunting situations to expand my belief in what I’m capable of.”

As for her family? “They have been so solidly supportive throughout this process. There were so many times when it felt like there wasn’t a path forward, and they were always there to offer insight and love. When it came to gymnastics, my parents were really good about making sure that I had space to decide to keep going or stop if I felt that was right,” she said.

Damhorst will be majoring in environmental science at U Penn.

“I have so much love and respect for our natural world and what we can learn from it. Climate change affects so many facets of our lives and is today’s most pressing issue,” Damhorst said.

And to the little girls in leotards who want to follow in Damhorst’s powerful footsteps, her advice is simple.

“Be open to trying new things and embrace mistakes and failure as learning opportunities and proof that you’re expanding your limits,” she said. “You can get better at things with practice, so if you aren’t good at something the first time, that’s OK. All of us experience nervousness or fear at new things sometimes, but getting new opportunities almost always requires pushing through that, so replace the word ‘nervous’ with ‘excited’ in your mind. It works wonders.”

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Christina Wise covers politics, education, art & culture, and housing issues. She has a degree in Communication from San Diego State University, and has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1996. She's a community advocate and a mother of two.


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