From the time Lenexa gymnast Maddie Desch got her first taste of gymnastics at the age of 6, she has been driven to represent the United States one day at the Olympics.
On Sunday and Monday at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, realizing that dream just got that much closer.
Performing in her first major international competition, Desch, who will turn 18 next month, helped Team USA to a gold medal in Sunday’s team competition. She placed second individually in that event, making her a medal contender for the individual all-around title contested on Monday.
Facing the pressure of being one of the favorites in front a large and boisterous crowd, she showed her mettle, delivering a strong performance that earned her a silver medal to wear along with her gold.
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“I’m really happy with my accomplishment,” said Desch, a St. Thomas Aquinas student who trains at the Great American Gymnastics Express club under coaches Al Fong and Armine Barutyan Fong. “I know things could have been better but taking a silver medal is a great.”
On Wednesday, she will have a chance to add to her haul of Pan Am hardware, when she competes in the final artistic gymnastics event of these Games, the floor exercise.
“I know it’s not over. I still have another day of competition so hopefully I can improve and accomplish even more,” said Desch, whose perfectionist approach to life extends from the gym to the classroom.
After completing Grade 12 this year, she’ll be off to the University of Alabama on a full athletic scholarship. While there, she hopes to fulfill the other dream in her life: to become a pediatric oncologist.
“I always have loved kids and I think that helping those kids out I can make a difference in the other part of my life,” she said. “As a gymnast, I’m a role model for younger kids, and I’d like to continue helping kids as a pediatric oncologist someday.”
In the meantime, if everything goes according to plan for her gymnastics, she expects her Pan Am medal to be just the first of many, including from the Olympics a year from now in Rio.
“The Olympics is definitely what I’ve been working for and hopefully this is the start of great things,” Desch said. “I think this meet is a confidence booster. Being at this meet and showing how I can compete under pressure, I think that it is a big part of my confidence. Knowing that the goal is 2016 is, you don’t think about it every day, but it’s always in the back of your mind because you know that it’s eventually what you’re training for. But you really have to take it one step at a time, and competing at this meet was a great step towards that. And I think that if I just keep working hard in the gym hopefully that dream will come true.”
She added that the Pan Am Games have given her some special memories beyond the medals — something she can’t wait for on an even grander scale at the Rio Olympics.
“I’ve had so much fun,” she said. “The Canadian crowd, they’re amazing. They cheer for everyone. And being in the village is great.”
Desch’s next big step on the part to Rio comes in late October, with the world championships in Glasgow. She was chosen for the team last year as an alternate but never had the chance to compete.