Undergrad Heads to World Championships with Olympic Berth on the Line
Photos courtesy of USA Gymnastics
Jessica Stevens ’24 starts out steadily. One bounce. Two. Three. Then suddenly, she rockets into a triple flip, two stories in the air, and springs back up into a dizzying series of tucks and twists, forward and backward, like Tigger unleashed—but with perfectly pointed toes.
This isn’t playtime on a backyard trampoline. The University of Maryland senior is one of the world’s top athletes in trampoline gymnastics. She won two gold medals (in the individual and synchronized events) at last week’s Pan-American Games in Santiago, Chile, and is heading to the World Trampoline Championships in Birmingham, England, opening Thursday, where she hopes to place in the top eight and qualify the United States for a berth at the 2024 Olympic Games in July. (Editor's note: She won the bronze medal, the first American podium finisher in nearly half a century, earning the U.S. one spot among the 16 Olympic slots for the sport.)
It’s not a leap: Last year, she came in sixth—the best result for an American since 2005 in a heavily Chinese- and Russian-dominated sport—and second in the team all-around.
“I’m really proud of where I am right now,” Stevens said. “I really want to get to the Olympics, but you also have to enjoy the journey.”
Trampoline gymnastics, an Olympic event since 2000, is a separate discipline from better-known artistic gymnastics (which includes balance beam, uneven bars, vault and a floor routine). Trampoline athletes are judged on how well they can execute 10 skills during a roughly one-minute routine as they reach heights of 15 feet or more, flipping and twisting while trying to stay centered.
“I love the feeling of flying,” said Stevens. “It’s so peaceful up in the air.”
She started in gymnastics as part of “Mommy and Me” classes as just a toddler, and as a little kid, quickly realized her favorite part was jumping on the trampoline. By the time she was 13, she qualified for the national team, and by 17, she had reached the highest level of the sport and competed at the world championships in Bulgaria for the first time.
There, two-time Olympic gold medalist Rosie MacLennan of Canada approached Stevens and said, “Hi, you must be Jessica!”
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, she’s talking to me.’ She’s such a legend in the sport. It really hit me that I was competing among the best,” Stevens said.
Her schedule is relentless. The U.S. competition circuit runs from February through June, and international competitions dot the year, so she rarely has downtime. She starts her day at 7:30, juggling in-person and online classes with two training sessions at the Fairland Sports and Aquatics Complex in Laurel, Md., where she works on her trampoline skills as well as strengthening her core and other conditioning. Despite the demands of the sport, she decided not to delay higher education so she could set herself up for the future.
“There’s the day when my body is going to say. ‘I’m not so sure about this anymore,’” she said.
Stevens earned an associate’s degree at Howard Community College, then enrolled at UMD in Fall 2022 as a criminology and criminal justice (CCJS) major and Russian studies minor, hoping to pursue a career in the legal field. Her professors have been a “godsend” in understanding her complicated schedule, and have made it easy for her to incorporate her studies into her travels.
For example, she’s pursuing an independent study with CCJS Lecturer Alan Lehman about cannabis around the world. Competing in places as far-flung as Azerbaijan, Mexico and Portugal this year, she’s able to interview people on the ground about their knowledge and experiences with marijuana laws.
And her beginner Russian skills are already giving her a leg up in her training. Her coach is from the Republic of Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union, so when she visited Georgia for a training bloc earlier this year, she was finally able to communicate with other experienced coaches and trainers who spoke no English.
“I started out not even being able to say hello to them, and now they can tell me to jump higher, work on certain things—even offer me tea. It was a great experience,” she said. She credits the “small, close-knit” Russian department in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, especially Maya Brin Distinguished Lecturer Zhanna R. Gerus-Vernola and lecturer Inna Hardman, for giving her the confidence to communicate, even if her grammar is imperfect.
Gerus-Vernola was shocked to find out Stevens was a world-class athlete, but soon realized “she has the same characteristics (in class) that make her such an achiever in her sport.”
Terps who follow Stevens’ progress at the world championships may see her touch her earlobe during interviews—that’s a secret “hello” signal she and her classmates agreed on before she headed out for three weeks of competition. “We’re all wishing her good luck!” said Gerus-Vernola.
Check out Stevens' routine at last year's world championships, where she placed 6th:
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