Having raised the bar, Kerber reflects on contribution
posted on 10/05/2015

© Grace Chiu

By Jo-Ann Barnas - Special to USA Gymnastics

There were more than 3,600 views of the video, and Jazzy Kerber was one of them.

It was part of a regular feature on USA Gymnastics’ website called “Transformation Tuesday," a then-and-now look highlighting an athlete, performance or event.

When she clicked on the video that day in June, it kind of felt like Kerber – a three-time rhythmic World team member -- was watching her own growth chart come to life.

But what she saw, though, can’t be measured in inches.

Titled "Jazzy Kerber competes with the hoop at the 2010 Visa Championships and the 2014 World all-around finals," the transformation indeed was something to behold: There’s Kerber competing as a lithe and graceful 13-year-old, and then, in the companion video, as a regal and poised senior team veteran four years later.

After announcing her retirement to USA Gymnastics last week (she plans to enter Stanford in 2016), Kerber turned introspective when she recalled the piece and talked about what the sport has meant to her.

“I feel like a lot of the ways that I’ve grown are less easy to see,” she said. “I’ve met a ton of different people, from different parts of the country and many different parts of the world. But I’ve so learned about hard work and dedication – just so many lessons that no matter what, I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

“I have so many memories from the past 14 years, and the years I’ve spent competing internationally. That’s an important time in anyone’s life, when you have an opportunity to learn about yourself and the world. I have no regrets that rhythmic gymnastics was what I was doing at that time.”

Kerber, 18, who was guided by Natasha Klimouk at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center near Chicago for her entire career (including six years as a member of the national team), competed for the last time last month at the 2015 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

Three months ago, she finished second in the all-around at the USA Gymnastics Championships behind Laura Zeng, who earned an individual spot for Team USA at next year’s Olympic Games in Brazil after her eighth-place performance in the all-around at worlds – the highest placement ever by a U.S. gymnast.

USA Gymnastics rhythmic program director Caroline Hunt praised Kerber’s elegance and work ethic, noting her important role in elevating Team USA’s position in world rhythmic gymnastics.

“She has had a defining role in establishing and representing a new level of rhythmic gymnastics for the USA, one defined by the technical quality needed to be a serious world contender,” Hunt said. “She brought the country to a new level upon which our program must continue to build.”

Here are excerpts from a phone interview USA Gymnastics had with Kerber with last week:

Question: Why did you decide to retire?
Answer: “I’m starting college next fall and I had (already) deferred a year, but I knew I couldn’t defer any more than one year. I deferred a year so I could be at this year’s world championships and be part of the team that would hopefully help get an Olympic spot. So I was thrilled when Laura earned that spot for the United States. But knowing that the U.S. will have one individual spot, I basically felt like there’s so many different things that I can do at this point. I totally have positive feelings toward the sport, and I’m so glad I’ve had the experiences all these years. But this year, I think I could get a lot out of trying some new and different things before I start college, and I’m so glad that the team right now has the depth and the skill. I know that all the girls – Laura (Zeng) and the rest -- will be doing great and the U.S. will totally be in a good place regardless if I’m still a gymnast or not. I hope to stay involved in the sport, but I’m glad I’ve been able to help the program over the past years and I know that, with or without me competing, the U.S. Gymnastics program is in a real good place right now."

Q.: Laura (Zeng) is a first-year senior national team member (this past season) and you’ve been a member of the senior team for a long time. You know what your long-range future is – college and Stanford – and she’s just beginning. Can you remember what it felt like to be (as young) as Laura?
A.: “In some ways we’ve had a similar experience, and in some ways, different. I don’t know what it’s like to be Laura, but I do remember at my first worlds, just kind of not knowing exactly what it was going to be like, and I didn’t know if it was like, scarier, per se; just more uncertain.

“So I think it’s incredible that she went out in her very first worlds and did so well. She’s had great international experience – including the Youth Olympic Games – but the world championships being a senior is a step up. And especially since this is an Olympic qualifying year, it really shows her quality and her consistency as a gymnast, that she’s been able to handle all of that so well.”

Q.: Rebecca Sereda retired earlier this year – she had battled lower back injuries. Did you talk to her about how it feels to step away from gymnastics?
A.: “Becca and I are friends. I think all of us on the team are close. Our circumstances were a little bit different. With injuries, it probably felt more like she was being forced out of the sport and less like a choice. I can’t speak for her, but I think that was probably hard because no matter what her mind wanted, her body wasn’t quite cooperating. So she didn’t get the same opportunity to think about what she wanted; she kind of had to stop to manage her injuries.

“I didn’t talk to Becca before I decided to stop competing. She texted me after and asked how I was and how I was feeling about it. But before, I think I mostly decided just for myself. Then I had to talk to my parents and my coaches and everyone like that. But it started out more personal.”

Q.: What will you be doing until you head to Stanford?
A: “I’m taking a combination of some classes and some work this year. I’m going to be coaching a little bit, and I’m also working some as a math tutor. I want to try as many different things as I can. Basically, I chose it because I want to. Not sure if I’ll be able to get Stanford credit for anything. I’m taking a biology class through Northwestern. I’m not an enrolled student, but a student at large. I think I’ll do some more of that later this year, and probably try to do some travel. I’m still working out all the details.”

Q.: What do you plan to major in at Stanford?
A.: “I’m starting undeclared. I don’t want to pin myself down early; I want to take a variety of classes at first. But I’m definitely thinking something in the pre-med direction will be a possibility."

Q.: When you look back -- you talked earlier about friendship and travel -- but how about a specific competition that was special to you? Would it be the world championships in Ukraine (in 2013) when you and Rebecca (Sereda) qualified for finals, making it the first time two Americans did that?
A.: “My first ever international competition was in Calais (France) in 2009, and I think the first always sticks with someone, no matter what kind of first it is. But in terms of my favorite, the 2013 World Championships would definitely be up there because having two U.S. finalists was one of those moments where you feel like you accomplished something for the country, and that’s really great. Winning an individual medal at nationals or something is certainly a good thing, but I don’t think those memories stick with me quite as much.

“I also think this past Pan Am Games will definitely be a memorable one because the Pan American Games is such a cool atmosphere, like a mini Olympics of the Americas, and I felt like the whole country did well and I felt like I helped the U.S.”

Q.: You were with Natasha (Klimouk), your coach, for a long time.
A.: I have other coaches, too, but Natasha has been my head coach, basically, my whole life. Natasha is such an expert in what she does, and she’s known me since the age of 4, so I can’t imagine what my gymnastics career would have been like with another coach. She was so central to it. But I also want to say thank you so much to all of my coaches. So I’m thankful that I had a bunch of different great influences because you can get something unique from everyone.”