Almost any day inside Bakersfield's American Kids Sports Center you'll find Vanessa Atler coaching kids and doing what she loves. But she's unlike most coaches.
Born down the road in Valencia, Vanessa started gymnastics at the age of five and immediately fell in love. "The whole act of flipping around. You feel like you're in the circus basically," said Atler. "It felt like play-not like a regular sport."
From a young age it was clear, Vanessa had the right stuff to be great. She was junior national champ in 1996, gold medal winner in the '98 Goodwill Games and a five time World Cup champion and looked to be a lock for the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney. Advertisers started to take notice and she was the face of a Reeces ad.
But by the time the US team was being put together at Olympic Trials, Vanessa struggled with injuries and a controversial coaching change. "When you want to go to the Olympics you want to do your best and at that point I wasn't," she told 23ABC.
But her biggest struggle was expectation. She says she always performed better as the underdog and once that
changed she just couldn't' adjust. "Everybody's rooting for me to do good and I think that for me internally was hard to deal with," she said. "I think if I did anything less than winning it was a failure."
The pressure showed in her performance. Over two days of trials she failed to land a single routine and then disaster as she slipped on her dismount from the beam and just missed serious injury.
She would finish sixth overall, high enough to make team, but not enough to get past the politics of the Olympic committee. On live TV she was left out of the team going to Sydney. "At the moment it was something that was really hard to go through," she said. "Went through a lot of depression. I thought I was in gymnastics to go to the Olympics."
Shortly after trials she would retire from the sport and appeared on the reality show "Starting Over." Years later she would write a children's book called "Let the River Flow." It's the story of a young gymnast who lost her first competition and wanted to quit but eventually returns to competing because it's something she loves.
The story of competing for the love of the sport is a mindset that aligns with Mike Williams, the owner of AKSC.
"One day out of the blue I got a call from her saying I want to join your club if you have an opening," said Williams. "Suddenly I had an opening."
Vanessa says she likes being out of the limelight because it allows her to focus on "what it's all about", coaching the next generation. "For me as a gymnast I didn't get enough of how are you feeling today? And being able to communicate with me personally," said Atler.
Winning is goal of every athlete and Vanessa will always have the medals to show for it. "She is not forgotten in our industry," said Williams. "A lot of people still remember her accomplishments, admire the way she has gone about things and I think now admire how she's used it to go on and help the industry and help kids."
Proving you can still stick the landing even after the toughest fall.
A couple years ago Vanessa married a fellow gymnast and the two recently had their first son in 2014. As for whether her son will be getting into gymnastics she says she just wants him to follow his passion.
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