After suffering a season-ending achilles injury in 2019, junior gymnast Deja Chambliss is on her way to competing at the NCAA Salt Lake City Regional on the vault.
The Colonials qualified as a team at the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional in 2019, but Chambliss was sidelined for the effort. The regional appearance marks the first in Chambliss’ college career and the first time a Colonial has qualified on vault since current assistant coach Chelsea Raineri’s feat in 2017.
“I definitely walked away very proud of my first NCAA regional appearance of college, but I know there’s a lot more that I can improve on, and I don’t only want to be there for vault,” Chambliss said. “I want to be there on the all-around with my team, so that was just a stepping stone of what I want to do in the future.”
Chambliss scored a 9.825 at the competition, just below her career-high 9.900 on vault. During the regular season, she recorded two 9.875s and one 9.900 on the vault.
She said she takes pride in her intense preparation both mentally and physically before her competitions. She added that her rigorous preparation allowed her to be “calm, cool, collected” when she reached the national stage.
“Nerves definitely come into play but if you prepare the right way, you look at it differently,” Chambliss said. “They aren’t necessarily nerves. It’s a chance to do what you know how to do.”
Chambliss said Raineri, who traveled with Chambliss for the competition, offered her support and advice that helped her stay focused and calm at the competition.
“She told me, ‘This is just another meet. This is your event,’” Chambliss said. “‘Do it like you know how. Just because you’re at regionals doesn’t change your vault.’”
The five-meet season was the first full slate Chambliss was able to compete in after missing the end of her freshman and sophomore seasons to injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively. Chambliss said she was proud of herself and the team for persevering through the season despite the challenges the pandemic presented.
“We were adapting at every angle, every change,” Chambliss said. “We started with a three-week offseason. We came back, guns blazing, for the last week, after a seven-day quarantine. I’m really proud that we never let COVID, quarantine, anything get the best of us.”
Head coach Margie Foster-Cunningham said Chambliss faced many obstacles in her career between her injury and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but she continued to be a “great example” for the team.
This season, the squad missed a team NCAA Regional appearance for the first time in five years and finished fourth among a seven-team field at the EAGL Championships. She added that Chambliss’ NCAA performance will serve as a primary motivating factor for the team next season.
“Our team now is seeing what pays off from practicing the way Deja does,” Foster-Cunningham said.
She said Chambliss’ NCAA showing proved she belongs on the “big stage,” adding that she demonstrates a strong work ethic. She added that Chambliss has done everything she can to not take her opportunities for granted and be a leader for the team in the age of the pandemic.
“I just don’t think you’ve seen her best yet,” Foster-Cunningham said. “She is the hero ingredient for our team for the next two years, and she’s dialed in and already focused on what she’s working on. She’s been back in the gym this past week working on new combinations and new elements.”
Chambliss was no stranger to postseason accolades prior to her Regional appearance. She was named to the All-East Atlantic Gymnastics League First Team for the Vault and the All-EAGL Second Team for the bars in her shortened sophomore season. She returned to the All-EAGL First Team for the Vault and also earned a spot on the All-EAGL First Team for the All-Around after the 2021 season.
Foster-Cunningham said Chambliss performs under-pressure exercises during practice to prepare herself for competition. Her fellow gymnasts all pause their training to watch Chambliss complete her routine to mimic the setting of the big stage, she added.
“We try to simulate competition settings, but again, I will tell you that there is nothing like being there,” Foster-Cunningham said. “You just go ‘Oh, wow. This is what they were talking about. This is what I’m getting ready for.’”
To return to the Regional competition, Chambliss said she will work to be more comfortable and consistent earlier on in the year. After redshirting her freshman season, Chambliss will have two more tries to get herself and her team back to what she called a “one in a million” experience at the national competition.
“I’d never been to Utah,” she said. “It was beautiful there to experience it and hang with the big dogs in competition. So it was a lot of fun, and I’m excited to get there with my team again next year.”
Belle Long contributed reporting.