Colette Yamaoka took one of the more unconventional routes in earning a roster spot for a nationally ranked Division I program. Yamaoka, a 2017 San Benito High graduate, was already enrolled at Oregon State University when she sent an email on Labor Day weekend of that year to Michael Chaplain, the associate head coach of the gymnastics team.
“That was a couple of weeks before I came out here (Corvallis) to move in,” she said. “Since I was all set for my freshman year, I thought I might as well reach out to him and see where it takes me. I didn’t want to give up on my goal (of competing on a college program) even though I knew it was kind of a reach.”
After an intense two-week tryout period, Yamaoka had earned a spot on the team. Last year as a freshman, Yamaoka was primarily an alternate on the uneven bars, and only competed in exhibitions. This past season she moved into the lineup and was a valuable contributor for an Oregon State team that finished No. 6 in the nation and reached the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas.
In the NCAA semifinals, Yamaoka scored a career-best 9.8125 on the uneven bars that helped give the Beavers a solid team score 49.2625 in the event. For Yamaoka, all of the hard work and the literally thousands of hours she had put in since starting gymnastics at age 3 had paid off in s sublime way.
“Competing at nationals for me was the highlight because that is the biggest competition in the NCAA at the highest level you can compete at,” she said. “So that was really exciting for me because I worked so hard to be where I am today. It was a really special moment.”
Yamaoka was a level 9 gymnast—most of the girls who are recruited by Division I programs are level 10—by her junior, and on her way to competing at the level 10 stage until she suffered a torn ACL in February of her junior year. The injury forced Yamaoka to miss the all important recruiting window to get her noticed by college coaches, resulting in the less than ideal predicament of hoping to earn an initial tryout strictly through her previous competition videos.
Turns out Oregon State had a need for gymnasts who could excel on the uneven bars, which happened to be one of Yamaoka’s strongest disciplines. Although Yamaoka competed strictly on the uneven bars this past season, her goal is to be a part of the rotation on the balance beam, vault and floor next year. As a freshman, Yamaoka was limited to competing in exhibitions. She’s come a long way, and all signs point the best is yet to come.
The two-week tryout period was one of the more stressful times in Yamaoka’s life, and yet one by one, she kept on impressing the Oregon State coaches: first it was Chaplin, then assistant coach Brian Amato followed by head coach Tanya Chaplin. Yamaoka always held a glimmer of hope she would one day compete for a high level college program, which is one of the main reasons why she chose Oregon State.
“I worked so hard all of my life practicing and competing in gymnastics that even if I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t imagine being at a school that didn’t have a gymnastics team,” she said. “When I visited here, I really liked the environment, the vibe of the campus and everything.”
Yamaoka has come a long way from her earlier years when she was fearful to perform in front of a crowd. In the NCAA semifinals, there was a moment of reflection of just how far she’s come, and the potential of even bigger things to come.
“I’m surprising myself because I don’t feel nervous at all in competition,” she said. “When I was pretty young, I remember I didn’t like to do stuff in front of people, and I was always really shy and would get really nervous all the time.”
Yamaoka said she’s overwhelmed with gratitude to land on a terrific team with even better teammates.
“Just being around all the girls on the team built my confidence,” she said. “And every time I hit a routine, I got more and more confident.”