- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2020

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Sabrina Vega strived for a four-year run of strong performances at the University of Georgia. She wanted something that extended beyond gymnastics, though, in order for her college career to hold value.

She wanted to be an influence on younger fans. Vega wanted to assure those who aspired to be future gymnasts were known. Not only recognized, but loved and valued. As a younger elite gymnast, Vega had those who she aspired to be. She watched the likes of Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, Carly Patterson and Shawn Johnson shine on the brightest Olympic stages from 2004-08. Vega never truly knew them.

She wanted to write her own narrative around fan interaction after making the transition to college. Vega had seen the individual accolades and successes at the elite level, and shifted focus toward those around her.

“My relationships with these little girls are what made a difference in my career,” Vega said. “This was my little something more.”

Once Vega’s latter half of her career began, she met Ella Sullens. An energy-filled, gymnastics-loving then-7-year-old little girl who latched onto the widely beloved GymDog in a matter of moments. Vega’s senior season ended abruptly. She didn’t have a chance to bid farewell to over 10,000 fans inside Stegeman Coliseum, especially those like Ella, who she “watched grow up” over the years.



Vega wanted that goodbye more than to compete one final time or get three perfect 10s as she envisioned in her head while standing in the arena for the last time. These young fans who adored Vega had a greater significance for the 24-year-old who became automatic with 9.950-or-higher scores each week in competition.

She found her most-special bond, too. The now-9-year-old is a changed kid because of Vega.

Ella got to meet her hero,” Ella’s mom, Ashley Sullens said. “And be shown that she’s important, too.”

HOW IT BEGAN

Ella began gymnastics at the age of 6. Her mom took her to a few meets, but Ella was too young to care. Ashley started to talk up Georgia’s program, then signed Ella up for the GymKids group as a part of the GymDogs’ Ten-0 fan club.

Ashley and Ella received an invite to an open practice prior to the 2019 season inside the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center. It came 10 days before Christmas, and this gift for Ella became too big to be wrapped in a box. She found the GymDog who she would have an affinity for. Vega, of course.

Vega had a special moment that day. She would perform a full routine on uneven bars for one of the first times. She made it a goal to compete on the apparatus, and eventually did through parts of the 2020 season. Ella got the first look, a year before everybody else did, and felt starstruck. Once returning home, Ella penned a handwritten letter on red paper with black ink.

“You did very good on your first bar routine,” Ella wrote. “I give you a 10.0. Good luck at your first meet. I will be a runner.”

Vega taught Ella determination that day, even though the young gymnast didn’t know what the word meant. Ashley broke it down and her daughter realized it. Ella knew of Vega’s nerves on uneven bars, but saw her favorite athlete overcome it. Ella doesn’t give up. She gets back up if a mistake happens and thinks, “If she can do it, I can do it” to herself.

A few weeks passed, and Ella fulfilled her promise as a runner. She got the best view of the meets - the middle of the floor - while giving a contribution to the GymDogs. The two reunited once more; Vega gave her No. 1 fan a big embrace and a connection truly came to life.

Vega hung Ella’s letter in her locker (she still keeps each one of them) and followed along with her young pupil’s journey with frequent interaction. Ella’s mom eventually created the @futuregymdog_ella Instagram account and the GymDogs jumped on following it quickly.

“She’s a really sweet kid who loves Georgia,” Vega said. “There’s one kid that always sticks out the most for each gymnast, and it was her for me.”

The Sullens’ household became Vega’s biggest cheerleading group. Ella ate, slept and breathed the GymDogs and always wanted to make Vega proud. Ashley designed an array of T-shirts (some were Vega-specific), gifted a pillow with an Instagram comment from Vega to her daughter for motivation and religiously attended meets over the past two seasons.

An adoration began, but would blossom soon thereafter. Vega fulfilled her biggest desire - actively influence, even if it’s only one girl.

“She’s a 9-year-old girl with a dream of being a GymDog, and a GymDog cares about her,” Ashley said. “Sabrina helps Ella realize her dream can come true.”

FINDING RELATABLE GROUND

Ella had quit gymnastics. She couldn’t do any of her backward skills on the balance beam anymore. She had a mental block and the young gymnast knew no way out. She looked ahead to new things as her passion fizzled.

Ella felt trapped. She couldn’t accept advice from her mother, Ashley, and Ella saw herself as alone to the point where tears of frustration were shed. She still loved Georgia gymnastics, however, and a chance to send the GymDogs to the 2019 national championships became an earthshaking afternoon for Ella.

Ella waited for about 15 minutes after an open practice in hopes of giving best wishes to Vega, who engaged in conversation with a couple of older fans. Ashley told her it might be best to leave, but the young gymnast who aspires to become Vega in every way refused. Ella needed to visit with her favorite GymDog.

Once Vega learned that Ella had stepped away from the sport, she suddenly became the counselor. She pushed Ella to the side and they discussed mental blocks. Vega had plenty of experience. She couldn’t twist on the vault after arriving at Georgia. Each year, Vega’s second tumbling pass on floor exercise becomes a no-go. She would sit in a corner while scared as the thought of “I can’t do this today” due to fear of the unknown. Reassurance did the trick through years of elite and college gymnastics.

“It might feel like you’ll never get out,” Vega said. “There is another side. I got to this point, so I knew she could get through it.”

Ella perked up. Everything clicked, because she heard it from someone else. Not only a new voice, but the voice of person the little level six gymnast wants to be in 10 years with dreams of also competing at Georgia. Ella returned home and Ashley saw a resurrected motivation in her daughter. She worked toward regaining back handsprings, then increased her volume each day. At each moment of doubt, Ella would ask herself “What would Sabrina do? Would she give up?” The answer would always be no, and Ella’s desire to compete is greater than ever.

They give all of the credit to Vega for reviving the path toward gymnastics at an early stage.

“I sat there and saw myself in her,” Vega said. “My biggest thing was relating to her. I didn’t know it meant that much.”

Ella, who calls Vega her “best friend” when no one is around to hear, saw an admiration with the departing GymDog become something more. On that April afternoon, the Sullenses realized how much Vega’s active role in their lives truly meant.

“She was broken,” Ashley said. “Sabrina made her feel special again. I’ll never forget that day.”

‘SHE LOVES ME’

Vega pauses and chuckles when reflecting on the young fans who flood into Stegeman Coliseum for each meet. Vega goes to give the children high-fives as they’ll whisper, “Oh my gosh, did you see her look over here?” The kids don’t think Vega can hear them. But she hears them rather well.

“The moment you make eye contact, they fall out of their chair,” Vega said. “I start dying laughing. They’re so excited to be noticed.”

Vega cherishes nothing more than being in close proximity to the young fans. She knows she can make their day, at least that’s her hope. If Vega is frustrated after two falls and a terrible meet, a single glance toward a little girl who loved her can change that instantly. They’d say, without hesitation: “You did so great. I want to be like you.”

Ella shows that support for Vega as well as any fan. Every routine, whether it’s good or bad, is a 10.0 in the 9-year-old’s book. She sees Vega as her legend, and the only thing missing is a cape to become a superhero. Ashley said that if Ella had the choice between getting the phone number of Vega or four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, it would be Vega. Without question.

“She means a lot,” said Ella, who made a list of reasons why she adores Vega. “She loves me and shows me that she cares about me. She never gives up.”

Ella’s heart would break if she never got to see Vega again. She dreams of being a GymDog and following in her luminary’s footsteps - which, of course, involves performing the moonwalk.

All because Vega did it.

“There’s no way Ella would be the same person or gymnast she is today without Sabrina,” Ashley said. “I want Sabrina to know how much she really means to Ella.”

Ella gave Vega’s college career meaning. The former elite gymnast needed someone like Ella, who looked up to her. Her time as a GymDog wouldn’t mean as much without knowing she was a mentor to a 9-year-old child.

But Vega never thought she could be like those who she once admired.

“It blows my mind,” Vega said. “I wanted to make a difference, but I just think I’m a normal person. It leaves me speechless, because I didn’t know I had that much influence. It makes everything mean so much more.”

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