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This Maryland teen is a Level 10 gymnast — and proud of her roots

This Maryland teen is a Level 10 gymnast — and proud of her roots

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Sophia Diaz has participated in gymnastics competitions around the world. The 17-year-old from Maryland has been to Germany, Belgium and the Dominican Republic, but no trip changed her outlook on the sport more than a visit to Puerto Rico.

Diaz and her teammates at Hill’s Gymnastics entered the gym in 2023 to see broken-down equipment and conditions starkly different from what they had in Gaithersburg. It sparked conversations between gymnasts and coaches.

“It just made me realize how privileged we are here in the U.S.,” Diaz said.

This weekend in Louisville, Diaz will compete in the Nastia Liukin Cup, widely regarded as one of the country’s top competitions for high school-age gymnasts. She advanced to the event last month with a dominant showing at a qualifier in Boston.

Her ascent has come despite barriers to entering and reaching the levels she has for Hispanic girls such as her. She’s grateful to have avoided them, but she’s also proud of her background.

Diaz’s father, Alberto, grew up in the Dominican Republic. He moved to the United States as a teenager and met Diaz’s mother, Nadia, whose family is from Haiti and Germany, in San Francisco. They moved to Maryland together to be closer to family — Alberto’s in Baltimore, and Nadia’s in Silver Spring. Diaz is a junior at River Hill, which doesn’t have a gymnastics team, and competes only for her club squad.

Diaz is aware of her unusual situation. The lack of peers who look like her is sometimes jarring.

Her interest in gymnastics was sparked at age 5, when she sat on the living room couch of her Clarksville home watching the 2012 London Olympics. She searched for a new sport to try. Aly Raisman, who won two gold medals that summer, gave it to her.

Raisman soared, twirled and leaped across the TV screen. Enamored with what she saw, Diaz wanted to be like her.

“ ‘That looks like a lot of fun,’ ” Diaz’s father recalled her saying. “She’s always been energetic, full of life and daring.”

Her parents enrolled her in beginner programs for children. Eventually, she became a talent who local clubs coveted. She has since rocketed up the ranks to become a Level 10, the highest classification in youth gymnastics. She had more than 20 Division I schools interested and chose Michigan over LSU, UCLA, Stanford and other powerhouses.

Diaz feels she represents a larger community, a group that’s perhaps unable to access gymnastics as she did.

As of last year, just 14 percent of female gymnasts were Hispanic, according to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Seventy percent were White. Just 5.4 percent of USA Gymnastics members are Hispanic, according to the organization. Alberto believes those marks are even lower in this area.

“The sport of gymnastics has been, for the longest time, a sport that is not attainable for everybody, for every family,” Hill’s coach Cynthia Smaha said.

Diaz puts her background on display when she competes. Her floor routine features beats from Hispanic tunes. Heavy drums and whistles boom from speakers and make Diaz feel as if she’s in a rainforest as she puts on a spectacle that makes everyone stop and watch.

She exudes excitement when asked about her family’s past — “I’m 50 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Asian, 25 percent German,” she explains — and seeks out ways to connect with those roots. She enjoys paella and once surprised her father by coming home from a trip to a convenience store with cow tongue, a popular treat in Hispanic countries.

“She’s proud of her multicultural heritage,” Alberto said. “The fact that she has it in her blood, I know she’s very proud of.”

Winning comes frequently for Diaz. But those victories are sometimes accompanied by reminders that she’s the only Hispanic competitor on the podium. Announcers occasionally mispronounce her name, turning a moment that should spark joy into one that brings annoyance.

But when her name is said correctly, Diaz runs off the platform to Alberto with a grin. “They got it right!” she tells her father through a smile.

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