For Samantha Peszek, the Olympic silver medal was just the beginning.
The recent Cathedral High School graduate plans to continue competing at the elite level of gymnastics nationally and internationally. But she also plans to become one of the few gymnasts to compete at the collegiate level as well.
Plus, she has begun to use her celebrity as an Olympic medalist to promote fitness in Indiana and across the nation, something she hopes can be a legacy.
“I want to be the face of the fight against obesity,” she said. “I always grew up in a healthy lifestyle.”
As an athlete, she said, she can get the attention of people, especially children, who need to hear the message about eating right and staying fit.
Peszek, 18, is talking with Riley Hospital for Children about an effort to work with kids, and she frequently makes volunteer visits to talk to kids at gymnastic programs in town.
Along with other members of the U.S. gymnastics team, she has appeared in national TV spots and made appearances to promote healthy living.
For as long as she can remember, her family has gone for bike rides or spent evenings playing games outside. She wants people - especially children - to know that exercise can be a part of their lives without being a burden.
“I don’t think that’s staying fit,” she said. “That’s just fun.”
Peszek’s platform to encourage physical fitness comes from accomplishments few high schoolers can match.
In 2008, Peszek was selected for the U.S. team that won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Peszek had a lot of competition for that spot. USA Gymnastics estimates that millions of athletes participate in gymnastics, and 85,000 are registered to compete. About 200 or so are considered elite gymnasts, and the national team Peszek is on is the top of that field.
She combines the intense strength required for many gymnastics events with grace in her movements, said Kathy Kelly, vice president for programs at USA Gymnastics.
“She is a very, very athletically gifted, strong gymnast,” she said. “Sam is absolutely terrific in terms of her power but also unique in that that girl can dance.”
At the same time she has traveled the world - for as many as four competitions a year and training with Bela Karolyi - she has maintained an A average at Cathedral and made the National Honor Society.
“It’s really they’re both kind of like full-time jobs,” Principal Dave Worland said.
But Peszek coordinated with school leaders, alerting them to trips and making sure she had all of her assignments completed.
Worland said the discipline and perseverance it takes to excel in school and to rise to the highest levels of her sport bode well for Peszek’s future, both as she goes to college and as she seeks a role in promoting fitness.
“She is aware that because of her success in the Olympics and the goals she’s been able to accomplish that she has a platform and people give her instant credibility,” he said. “When she does say something, she’s able to get people to listen.”
Peszek dreams one day of having her own TV show, something along the lines of Oprah Winfrey’s show.
She knows the odds are slim, but so were the odds of making it to the Olympics.
By Andy Gammill