Athlete Spotlight: Jessica Tai

by Katie Baker '05, Yale Sports Publicity Department

Jessica Tai smiles as she describes her trademark maneuver on the uneven bars.

"It's weird-looking," she says. "It looks like something you'd do on a jungle gym."

Tai ought to know - the move, after all, is named after her. Following her completion of the new sequence at the 2003 Junior Olympics Level 10 Nationals, Tai earned the unique honor of having the skill, which involves swinging off the higher bar and twisting in the air over the lower one before catching on, bear her name in the Gymnastics Handbook.

But the coining of the Tai is just one item in a remarkable list of achievements for the Bulldog rookie that includes accomplishments not just in gymnastics but also in academics, music, art, and community service.

"I knew immediately that I wanted her on this team," said head coach Barbara Tonry. "With her academics and her gymnastics ability it was a win-win situation there."

Tai began to take gymnastics classes as a three-year old, the same year she had her first piano lesson. As she got older, she quickly advanced in both areas, joining a club gymnastics team near her home in Holmdel, NJ and entering the New Jersey Music Teachers Association Annual Piano Audition program as a kindergartner. There, she was recognized with Honors for the first of what would become 13 consecutive years of such distinction.

Her talent on the piano would eventually place Tai on such world-renowned stages as those in the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall - all while she was still a high school student at Holmdel HS. Still, she made plenty of time for gymnastics, competing not only for her club but leading her high school team as well, commitments requiring hours of time per day.

"It was tough, but I loved doing high school gymnastics," Tai said. "It's a lot like collegiate gymnastics in that there's more of a team and you're all very close. Club is more individual."

After a strong freshman year, Tai's list of gymnastics achievements snowballed. Before her senior year, she had already qualified for the Junior Olympic Level 10 Nationals, earned first and second all-around finishes in the New Jersey High School State Finals, and tied the state record of 9.7 on the uneven bars.

Meanwhile, Tai continued to perform musically, playing not only the piano but the flute as well. In addition, she picked up the art of traditional Chinese brush painting from her mother and went on to win the National American Chinese School Youth Brush Painting Contest her senior year after having placed second twice.

But Tai tore her ACL partway through her junior year, requiring surgery and putting a question mark on her gymnastics future. She worked hard to rehab her knee, getting her full strength and flexibility back quickly enough to place first in the all-around at the NJ High School State Finals and lead her team to an undefeated season and second place finish, their best ever.

At that point, the top student, who says she is interested in the sciences and may possibly pursue a pre-med track at Yale, was in the midst of deciding between MIT and Yale. On her recruiting visit to New Haven, she fell in love with the campus as well as the team.

"I love the girls on the team," she says. "We are a really close team and it was great coming in as a freshman and not knowing everyone but having a team there for me."

After committing to Yale, Tai went on to qualify for the 2003 Junior Olympic National Championships, where she completed her new skill on the uneven bars and put it into the official gymnastics lexicon for good.

But despite having a move of her own on the uneven bars, Tai says her best event is actually the floor exercise, a statement with which Tonry agrees.

"She is a very powerful little tumbler, plus she's very elegant," Tonry said. "As a concert pianist she feels her music, which is a plus."

Unfortuantely, Tai has been unable to show New Haven fans her gymnastics abilities thus far this season. One week before the start of the regular season, Tai was working in practice on her hardest move in the floor exercise - a back flip with three full twists, something which no other Yale gymnast is able to do at this point-and sprained her ankle in the process, preventing her from entering many of the meets this winter.

"It's disappointing that Jess hasn't been able to debut her skill, the Tai, this season due to her ankle injury, but she's been working hard and looks to be back in the lineup soon," said teammate Kat Fong, who shares Tai's talent for uneven bar and floor exercise prowess. "I'm looking forward to seeing her compete, as she's a very talented gymnast."

Recently, Tai has begun the process of returning to meets, competing in the vault event thus far and working toward being back to full strength.

"She's been back and vaulting for us the past few meets," Tonry said. "She's just ready to learn even more things, and she's hungry to be a better gymnast, and she will be. We can't wait to get her back healthy."

And, according to Tonry, there is one other thing that the team would like to get out of Tai as soon as possible:

"We still haven't heard her play the piano!" Tonry said, laughing.