During the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, many dreams were realized, such as one of an 11-year-old Dominican girl who dreamed that she could someday rise to a podium and listen to her national anthem at the Olympic games. This young gymnast was Yamilet Peña.
Five years earlier, given her parents’ desire to watch their daughter become an athlete, Yamilet began to practice artistic gymnastics in the Mota Sarmiento Club at the Olympic Center in Santo Domingo. This club no longer exists today. From the beginning, gymnastics became her passion because of the graceful movements.
“When I saw those girls with a more advanced level than mine make those moves, I wanted to do the same. The same thing happened during the Pan American Games. I wanted to be big,” Peña remembers.
Yamilet was not dreaming about the Pan American Games she was dreaming about the Olympic Games. No matter the sacrifices, she would find a way to get there. She would go directly from school to the Olympic Center to practice four hours everyday. Even with the time taken away from her family and social life and despite the injuries to her hands, wrists, arms, and legs, she would continue to work hard. “Because of the bone fractures and strains, I had to wear a cast eight different times,” explains the gymnast.
“I FEEL PRIDE IN MY HEART: NOT ONLY DID I GO TO THE OLYMPICS,
BUT I FINISHED AMONG THE EIGHT BEST IN THE WORLD”
Her first chance to show the results of these sacrifices came in the moments prior to the Rio Pan American Games in 2007. “It was amazing, at the age of 12 and 13, I was competing with girls from this country who were 19 and 21,” she remembers. Not only did she compete against them, she defeated them and qualified for the Pan American Games.
But she had an accident. During a training session before the Games while performing a double-back flip, she hit the front part of her head. With a bone fracture located in her ear her balance was affected and Yamilet lost 8 months of training as well as the possibility of attending the Pan American Games that year and the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. “I felt disappointed for not being able to attend the games I had already qualified for,” she says.
In 2009, she took part in the first event preparing for the next Olympic cycle, the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayagüez. After doing well in the qualifying stage, she made two spectacular jumps in her first opportunity on her way to the final. Two days later in the medal competition, everyone talked about the gold medal expected to be won by the small Dominican athlete.
“Back then, we weren’t working with a sports counselor,” Yamilet’s coach Francisco Susana, explains. “When Yamilet Peña saw herself in the finals competing against the best in Central America and the Caribbean, she choked and couldn’t perform the jumps.”
That is why later Yamilet worked on her self-confidence with a sports counselor. Having recovered her confidence and passion for challenges, she began working on a rarely achieved gymnastics move: a triple somersault.
Known as the Produnova, in honor of Russia’s Yelena Produnova, who conquered this triple somersault in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, the jump consists of running at full speed, propelling yourself through the air, executing a front handspring and erupting into a double somersault. It is considered extremely risky and a bad execution can cause serious damages in the lower extremities and neck. As a matter of fact, one of the most dramatic injuries that occurred while trying the Produnova was sustained by the Russian athlete Elena Mukhina, a 1978 World Champion, who ended up a quadriplegic after breaking her neck just before the Moscow Games in 1980.
Peña tried the jump for the first time in the 2011 Tokyo Artistic Gymnastics Worldchampionship and even though she could not complete it, the level of difficulty landed her 7TH among 358 competitors. This earned her an invitation to the final world qualifying event for the London Olympics in 2012, and there she obtained the 14.786 score on the vault and a 46.581 all around.
“I entered the world ranking, and what a way to enter!” she proudly remembers. “I was placed in a position where no Dominican gymnast had ever been before.”
Now she would need very high-level training to have a good performance. “I don’t think I spent three days with my parents before the Olympic Games. She had Produnova on her mind all day.
On August 6, 2012, Yamilet became the first Dominican gymnast to participate in the Olympic Games. In the qualifying round in London, she finished third after completing the Russian triple somersault. She finished sixth, giving her all in pursuit of the medal. She did not make it to the podium, but her efforts touched 10 million people at home.
After London, Peña trained with 4 different coaches including Gustavo Moure and Nina Walker in the United States, two well-known gymnastics trainers, with names under their belt such as Olympic medal winner Gabby Douglas. As result, she won the silver medal in the Pan American Games in Toronto 2015, the highest honor that a Dominican athlete has received in Gymnastics.
She did not qualify for the Rio 2016 Games, but Peña, who is now 24-year-old understands she still has a chance to do more. “A person can still rise. I aim to qualify for Tokyo in 2020, and I’m going to strive to do it.”
Yamilet will be 28 in 2020, an advanced age for the sport. But in 2008, Russian gymnast Oksana Chusovitina won an Olympic silver medal at the age of 33.