Anja Garcia decided to finish her journey as an elite gymnast during her junior year at UC Berkeley. However, she found her passion for teaching fitness to others after joining classes in the rec center. Teaching and filming for Nordictrack, Sweatfactor and Daily Burn continue to be her outlet for the difficulties she faces during her night shifts as a nurse in the pediatric ICU. And as she is about to embark on the journey of motherhood, she emphasizes the importance of what she has learned about fitness and nutrition, as well as how she intends to model these lessons to her future children.
Where are you from and how did you get into gymnastics?
I grew up in Sacramento and I’m the oldest of three. My sister and I are 20 months apart, and I have a younger brother that is seven years younger than me. When I was three, I was driving my mom bananas. That’s when there were phone books, and when she opened it up and the first thing she saw was gymnastics, she put me in it. The rest is history. Neither of my parents had any experience in gymnastics. My dad did track and football in high school, and my mom didn’t really do any sports. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
At what age did you start competing?
I started competing at age seven, which was the youngest age you could. I was at the elite level by age 11, which is the highest level. It was a lot. I was training 30 hours per week at nine years old. My parents tried their best to limit the amount of time I was there, especially because I was usually the youngest in the group. It’s a sport you have to do that young. Eventually my parents made me do piano for a while to be better rounded. I was like, “Mom, seriously I can do this.” I let go of the piano so I could do two-a-day workouts before and after school. The deal was that I would never home school.
Did other athletes in your gym home school to focus on gymnastics?
Yes. It’s a lot when you’re that age, but I loved it. I was never forced to do it, which is why I think I continued. My punishment was staying home from practice. I always wanted to go, even when I was sick on my deathbed. I always loved it and never felt pushed. My mom even said if I quit she would buy me a horse or throw a party. Being an elite athlete is hard. Sophomore year some bad things happened with my coach. If you have read anything about gymnastics lately then you are aware of the abuse. I had gone through that. Both my parents are in the psychiatric field and said I could quit if I wanted. My mom always wanted me to stop; however, she didn’t want another person to take away something I loved. She advised me to try it for a couple months, and if I decided I hated it and didn’t want to do it, she would support me. She didn’t want me to look back and feel like I wasn’t done. I thrived so much after that.
Wow, that’s so brave. How did you move forward?
My sophomore year I decided that since I had some injuries that a college scholarship is something better to think about than the Olympics. I had tendonitis in my heels and elbows, and had already torn both hamstrings. Plus there were hundreds of girls vying for five spots, which is brutal. When I stepped back from the elite level, I started having so much fun again, and was so excited and honored to get a full ride scholarship to Cal.
What was it like competing at UC Berkeley?
At the end of my freshman year, I tore the ACL of my elbow and had reconstructive surgery right before the PAC 10 championships. The injury took a year to come back from, which was one of the hardest challenges I’ve had to overcome. It never fully healed for gymnastics purposes. Then I was in constant pain afterward. I have a lot of empathy for athletes. It is an honor because not many people get to do it — but it is 100 percent a job. Being injured and hurting every day just mentally took a toll on me for sure. I ended up associating pain and suffering with the sport. Plus I had a coaching staff that wasn’t supportive. I ended up hating a sport I had loved my whole life and quitting the last half of my junior year. I just couldn’t continue when everything hurt all the time and there was no longer very much joy. The hard part is that now the coaches are amazing and people I’ve known since I was a kid. I wish I could be there now. I’ve been able to go back to teach the girls spinning and things. It wasn’t the ending I hoped it could be, but I think I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I had finished Cal competing, I don’t think I would have started teaching. I try to see that though it’s not the best ending in gymnastics, it was a better ending for the rest of my life.
It must have been a very difficult transition, since you decided to quit competing while you were still at Cal as a student. Can you speak to that?
I was a gymnast for almost 20 years of my life. I would ask myself, what am I without my sport? What am I going to do? I had a full ride, so I was also giving up money to quit. I was really depressed. Luckily I had parents who didn’t care and would pay for the rest of my school so I could be a regular student.
Did you have any support besides your parents?
Luckily for me, my roommate I had lived with since freshman year quit competing her sophomore year. I was lucky to have a teammate and friend who had gone through the same thing. At the time when all my teammates would go to practice, I didn’t know what to do. I had all this extra time I never had or needed before, and being able to structure myself was something I really had to adjust to. I ended up starting to go to the rec center because I was bored. I always had someone else telling me what to do for fitness, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started taking classes and thought it was so fun. I switched from pre med to public health, and got really into disease prevention. I realized that if everyone knew how fun fitness could be, we wouldn’t be struggling with diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, as well as wasting money by not teaching prevention. My then manager had been watching me and wanted to train me how to teach. I figured it would be fun to get extra time to work out, but I’ll never teach. I swear to this day I attribute that as a big turning point of my life.
How was teaching fitness a turning point in your transition?
Teaching helped me become more confident and learn how to present myself, even as a nurse educating people. Teaching has been a godsend in so many ways to transition from being an athlete. When I quit, I thought I had to give up being an athlete. But now I know you are an athlete because you have a body, and I get to teach people how strong and powerful they are. As a gymnast I was taught this indirectly, and now I get to help inspire people in their own journeys. Once you get through the fog of realizing you aren’t going to be in the .01 percent of the population who will achieve their dream of going to the Olympics or your sport’s grand finale, you have to learn how to go with the punches. I had friends in tennis and football who were holding on to that goal and their bodies were falling apart. I think it’s important to help young athletes in that transition to learn all their gifts they can present to the world. We have a lot to offer in the next phase of life.
Have there been any challenges in teaching fitness to others, especially since you are also a nurse?
I love teaching fitness for so many reasons. I like working with professional athletes, but also the person who has never done anything. I like showing people all the amazing things they can do. I work in two separate fields – as a nurse in the pediatric ICU at night, and teaching fitness classes during the day. I work with very sick kids that would do anything to be healthy. Seeing that kind of suffering and resilience gives you so much perspective about life. I don’t think everyone should see the suffering I see, but I do think sometimes people take things for granted. I believe that you have to take every day and make the best of it. Tomorrow isn’t promised. If you want to be better, do better. As a trainer, I hope I can teach my students that they can change their own world, their own life. The whole point of being a trainer, nurse or teacher is to be an educator. I want all my students to take what I’ve taught and hopefully teach it to others as well.
It is interesting that athletes seem to develop a different mindset than those who never participated in sports. Do you see that in nursing as well?
I’ve been a nurse for 10 years, which is something not even athletic based. It’s funny because I tend to gravitate toward other athletes, even before I learn their background. I think it’s because when you are young in an organized sport you build camaraderie, know how to work with people, as well as develop time management and perseverance. You learn you have to do the work yourself. I never did an internship in my life. I remember applying to grad school and thinking I wouldn’t get in because of what I haven’t done. But when I applied I told my story of being an athlete and how it shaped and melded me, and I think employers look at that and realize the skills athletes have.
How do you manage the rigorous routine of being a nurse at night and a trainer during the day?
I taught fitness all through grad school, and didn’t realize at the time that it kept me sane. When I got my first job, I thought I would never teach again. The first six months at the hospital were very rigorous, and I had to rotate one month of day shifts and then one month of night shifts. I thought I couldn’t have a consistent class. I was so depressed after six months for a lot of reasons. I was working with a sick population in new city where I didn’t know anyone. Plus what I see on a daily basis are things you can’t go home and tell people because no one would understand. I begged my mom to pay my initiation fee to go to this fancy gym, and when I started taking classes I was happy again. Then the instructors asked me to sub, so I figured maybe I would at least do that and get my fix. Then when I did that, I realized that my job as a teacher makes me better at my job as a nurse. Teaching helps me cope with death and sickness. I realized if I work the night shift, I could hold regular classes. I did that and started teaching more. It’s funny because the evaluators at the hospital realized I was so much happier. Now I tell new nurses to get an outlet. I realized fitness and health is so much a part of the athlete in me that had never gone away, and I have to feed that part of me to be whole. When I teach that’s the way I can do that.
I think that’s a story that rings true to many athletes in their transition, as it can be difficult to find how to continue incorporating the part of fitness they love in their life as they start a full-time career—as well as for moms. Do you foresee any of these troubles as you become a mother soon?
Everyone tells you what will happen once you have a child, and that you can’t have it all. I don’t know if I can have it all, and I realize everything will change drastically with someone to take care of. I’m lucky to have a partner that wants to parent with me, so I feel like I won’t have to give up nursing and teaching. I want to go back to work filming and teaching. My mom always worked, and I thought she was so strong. I hope I can have a healthy balance of working and being a mom, and that my little girl will say it’s so cool I did all these things.
What would your advice be to other parents when it comes to incorporating fitness?
A lot of moms do online stuff and their kids see them workout. One of my big things since over half of population is overweight or obese is that we have to teach kids that fitness isn’t a punishment, but instead part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s so important for kids to see how parents take care of themselves and expect to be treated emotionally and physically. Mommy needs to do it because it’s healthy. I always tell my husband Matthew that I want our kids to grow up with a healthy relationship with food and fitness because it contributes to self-esteem and how they present themselves. It’s one thing I really hope to show them from a personal example — that this is what you do to be a healthy person — so then they don’t have to try to learn when they are older. Don’t wait until your sick to do something, because at that time it’s so much harder. Do it when you are healthier so you aren’t trying to work backwards. I hope that I can be a beacon not just for kids but everyone else, showing that it’s not too late to start — but start now. You don’t have to be Serena Williams to be an athlete. All you have to do is live your life, do your best today and take it one day at a time.
Speaking of online training, how did you get into leading Daily Burn?
Randomly one of my bosses at the gym introduced me to someone who started the online program that was Daily Burn. I had never done filming before, but I thought I would give it a shot.
Have your injuries from gymnastics, or your pregnancy, affected your workouts?
As for injuries, my elbow is something I’m super protective of. I tried getting into Krav Maga and boxing on the bags, but that particular exercise aggravates my elbow and so I can’t do it. I also struggle with lower back things. I do acupuncture and have a friend who is a chiropractor. I’ve learned new ways to take care of myself as my body ages. However, I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and I don’t deal with a lot of things other former athletes do.
As for the pregnancy, it’s crazy that my body can still do almost everything as before. I don’t row anymore because that doesn’t feel good. It’s funny to me because I’m not used to slowing down. I’m learning a lesson of patience, because I can’t do everything at warp speed anymore. I’m thankful I’m able to work out during pregnancy. I’ve known other women who’ve had to be on bed rest.
Wow – it sounds like fitness has never really been an issue for you. What about the nutrition aspect?
I had to really relearn things. Gymnastics isn’t the healthiest sport in terms of body image. I never had an eating disorder, but I had disordered thinking around it. I had to learn that I could eat in moderation, not just veggies and lettuce. I’ve been out for 13 years, and it took years for me to relearn how to eat well. It’s so true that your health is 80 percent nutrition. You can’t outwork a bad diet, that’s for sure. I’m adamant that I want to be the healthiest I can for my kids so they can learn. I’ve always had to watch my weight, so I learned at a very early age to control it. I had friends who were never overweight in their youth. They could eat what they wanted. But now they are struggling in their 30s because they have no idea.
Do you ever miss gymnastics?
It took me a really long time to miss gymnastics. I remember telling my coach when I was going to quit that I hope one day I can look back and love it. I was in such a terrible place with the sport to the point that I wouldn’t watch it on TV. Now I follow it much closer and I miss the competition. I liked to practice and all that, but I loved the competition. A lot of adults I know who are former competitive athletes do Spartan races or Ironman triathlons, and I think that’s what they chase — the thrill of the competition.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
You know what they say, there’s no point in looking back, you aren’t going that way! I’m fortunate to be doing all the things I love right now in this moment.
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