Red, white and blue bedazzled leotards sparkle in shadow boxes in the lobby of Hangtime TNT Gymnastics next to framed snapshots with President Obama and the Fierce Five. Inside the gym, little girls’ voices echo loudly over a snack of Goldfish crackers and apple juice, but once 25-year-old Savannah Vinsant Thompson enters the room, for a split second, all you can hear is the faint crescendo of The Lion King soundtrack.
The girls stare at her with a wide-eyed wonder reserved for superheroes and Disney princesses. In many ways, she embodies both. At age 19 in London, the Lafayette-area native became the first U.S. woman to reach an Olympic trampoline final. Her 2012 record-shattering finish earned her success and the promise of even more, but in a surprise move, she abruptly “threw in the towel.”
During the next five years, she focused on life — finished college, got married, became a mother and started her own gym. But recently, she returned to her longtime coaches at Trampoline and Tumbling Express to give it another go. Her comeback resulted in winning the U.S. National Championship in July and an invitation to compete with the 2018 USA Gymnastics National Trampoline Team in the 33rd World Trampoline Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia, this fall. As she approaches her next competitive vertex, Thompson reveals, she’s charting a new path.
You were the youngest woman to compete in trampoline at the 2012 London Olympics. Going back into competition half a decade later, how do you feel you’ve changed?
I find mentally, emotionally and physically, I’ve matured tremendously. I find a lot of any sport is mostly mental, so if you can be a mentally strong athlete, you have a pretty promising career. A lot of your battles are within your own head: “You can’t do it, yes you can do it, no you can’t do it, I’m too tired today, I really don’t want to put in the energy.” You’re going to go through those days, and you’re going to have those struggles, so if you learn that life gets tough, things get hard, things get crazy, but if you continue to push past that and keep your eyes set on what you want … I didn’t say it was going to be easy, if it were easy it would be a totally different life we’re living. That’s with anything, whether it be as a business owner or motherhood or marriage. I find that being older this time around just gave me that opportunity to not feel like I had a whole lot of pressure on me. I really love this sport, and I have since I was a 6-year-old child. I’m showing the kids that no matter if I’m 50, I can still love the sport and continue to follow what my heart desires. This is brand new news, but after nationals, I have decided that I’m not going to pursue an Olympic track.
Is it just that you didn’t want to pursue the Olympics this time or are you retiring?
I’ve pretty much made my decision that I’m officially going to stay true to my family and my business and my kids here. After nationals, I was given several assignments internationally for certain competitions, and we had a little time off, and I had a lot of time to pray about it and really seek what it was that I was going after. I’m not a 19-year-old anymore who just has a career on the line. I have a husband, and I have a son. I have this wonderful business. So instead of me taking that place and trying to figure it out along the way, I made the decision. Several people I’ve talked to said, “Are you crazy?” But, I’m really happy, and I truly feel, in my heart, I would not have any regrets. It is a bittersweet thing because as much as it would be wonderful to go back, it’s a little bit of the unknown. How would I do? How would it go? I do also know that I’ve already had that journey, and it was wonderful, and it was even better coming back after five years. So I was honored that they asked me, but I knew where my heart wanted to be, and it was here, grounded and being with my kids, and my family and my business.
That’s a very mature and gracious decision.
When I ended my career, I was so burnt out with the sport that I just kind of threw in the towel, and it was unexpected and was not truly thought out. I was 19, and I just needed a break. I needed a breather. I just wanted to be normal, which was finishing college, having a home life, and I did experience that. I went through some ups and downs along that journey because I had to find who I was without the sport. I did find Savannah the person, and I found that I was good at a lot of other things than just trampoline. Knowing that I had that stability and that security really was an eye-opener for me. And hopefully, one day, I can share those experiences with a student of mine on a bigger playing field, even if it’s not the Olympics. Even if it’s just world championships or an international competition. I ended my career on top and not where I was before. Not just on top meaning awards, but on top within myself and with where I was in life. It was wonderful. It was fabulous. That was the kind of closing chapter I wanted.
Who is your biggest role model in your sport?
One girl that I have always looked up to was Irina Karavaeva, a Russian trampolinist. She was absolutely phenomenal. She changed the whole stage for trampoline. She’s retired now; she went to several Olympics and was very successful. The first time I got to meet her was actually at the Olympic Games. She and my coach were very close friends and, being at the Olympics, you’re already a little starstruck, but meeting her was like a dream come true. Honestly, I didn’t really say much. I did say “hello” in Russian, but that was about it. I think she kind of understood. She’s been here before. She stayed and watched our practice that day, so it was really cool and humbling.
What surprised you the most about your Olympic experience?
The most memorable thing, other than competing, was the opening ceremonies. They put us all together as a delegation, and I’m looking around, and I see people like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Lolo Jones. And for that night, I didn’t feel like just another human. They made me feel like I was on the same stage as them. I was starstruck completely, and I was very nervous to go take pictures, but we did get pictures. They treated me as as an equal — when I know my career was nothing like any of theirs — but they still treated me with respect. “Hey you made it here, and so did we. Right now, we’re Team USA together.” And it was just really cool to have that bond with some complete strangers that you just see on TV.
How did you come to the decision to open your own gym in the Lafayette area?
I’ve been in gymnastics almost my whole life. As a young girl, I always wanted to have my own place. That was my first dream before I had my Olympic dream. I went into a facility one time and said, “Gosh, it would be wonderful to have a gym like this.” Years later, I finished my career and met my husband who sparked that fire to pursue it. I was born and raised here, and it only seemed fitting to have a gym in my hometown. I was raised around the corner from here in a little subdivision right outside Scott. We just made our two-year anniversary. We actually have plans to expand in the rear of our facility. We thought about expanding to other areas of Acadiana, but it gives me a little bit of anxiety. My husband works a full-time job offshore, and he’s only home half the year, so 90 percent of the time, it’s just me running this business.
What do you think is the biggest benefit for young girls to participate in trampoline and sports in general?
I think with any sport, learning who you are within the sport is a huge deal and not forgetting who you are at the same time. This is just a great outlet for them to share their passions, to follow that dream and not give up on it, to always be humble and to be proud of themselves no matter what the placement is. If they know they did their best that day, regardless of if it was first or last, they accomplished something. There are a lot of people out there who are too afraid to take that step. And they’re doing it, so it’s a big deal.
What are the challenges of being a woman in the sports industry?
I would say being a woman in any industry is difficult. But I’m lucky enough to be in a sport that is mostly women. So we all — no matter if it’s trampoline or tumbling or rhythmic or artistic gymnastics — we all have the same visions to bring some light to our sport. It’s very important that people understand what we’re doing, and it’s more than just a backyard trampoline or just twirling a ribbon around. We’re impacting lives every single day. To have that community that stands together and a community of women, it’s a very powerful movement and hopefully in the coming years, the light is brought to those sports where everybody can know it for what it is.
As USA Gymnastics is under intense pressure to shape its ethics and change some policies, how do you as an athlete and someone coaching young girls, set and share knowledge about boundaries?
USA Gymnastics has put in a lot of policies recently, such as Safe Sport and other things that make sure gym owners and members are protected, as well as their customers and their students. Just like any other business, we start out with a standard background check, and we make sure everyone who’s working with children here is safe. We also monitor what happens in classes. I teach my girls and my staff that if something were to happen, address it immediately. We’re spotting kids all day long, and there’s times when things are going to happen, but talking to mom immediately, not letting it just go under the rug. I find that the more vocal we are about it, the less likely it is to be something that has to be addressed. Now of course I can’t control everything, just as the situation with USA Gymnastics. I think a lot of that was just either overlooked or people were never educated enough on it. So I find the more I actually talk to my girls, and we have strict policies where instructors can’t be alone with students ever. If we have a student in here, a parent or guardian has to be present.
As an athlete, did you ever feel like you were in a situation where you had to go out of your way to set those types of boundaries for yourself?
Not necessarily. I’ve had a really wonderful journey throughout this sport. But of course, you know, as a young woman back before I stopped competing, you always have to have your guard up and you always have to make sure that you’re aware of your surroundings and especially becoming somebody high up in the sport — again not that I was on a big scale of, “Oh my gosh, do you know who that is?” — but in my community, I was. So you learn to be alert and always to make sure that I wasn’t putting myself in situations that I couldn’t get myself out of. And that’s difficult. That’s part of learning, as a young woman anyway, how to have your guard up 24-7, but still not be a hermit.
How was that experience of becoming a role model to so many young girls?
It was wonderful. I’ve had a lot of young women look up to me over the years, and I’ve done a lot of motivational speaking. In a sense, I do wish along my journey, I would have pushed a little bit more as far as being a better role model, also reminding them that this wasn’t just me. I was given this talent. It is a God-given talent. I did do that on a small scale, but I wish I would’ve pushed that a little bit more in the previous years of my life. I try to make that impact now.