The last time 16-year-old sophomore Nola Matthews was doing traditional in-person schooling was as a fourth-grader at Las Animas School.
That’s because the Gilroy resident long set on a path that has her now competing as an Elite Senior level gymnast. If a gymnast wants to make the Olympic Games, they have to first go through the Elite Senior level.
As a high-caliber gymnast, Matthews has done online schooling since the fifth grade because of her time commitment in gymnastics, which on average involve 30-plus hours of training a week. Matthews, who trains out of Airborne Gymnastics in Santa Clara, was part of the U.S. Senior Women’s team that won gold in the DTB Pokal Team Challenge and Mixed Cup March 17-19 in Stuttgart, Germany.
In the Team Challenge results, Matthews placed fourth in the balance beam, fifth in floor, seventh in uneven bars and 15th in the vault. Matthews also competed in the 2022 DTB Team Challenge, which was one of her first handful of events for the U.S. team at the Elite Senior Level.
“Both trips to Germany were amazing, each in their own way,” she said. “But this trip felt a little more special because I contributed in every event whereas last year I just did bars. Competing as an all-arounder was really special and something I’ll remember.”
Some of Matthews’ other career top highlights include winning the uneven bars event in the 2022 Winter Cup and earning the bronze medal for the all-around in the 2023 Winter Cup.
“Getting third at the Winter Cup was a huge step for me,” she said. “It showed I was making a lot of progress and it was good to know I could be consistent in all the events.”
Matthews’ hard work and diligence continually translates into results.
“I’ve been doing lots and lots of routines in practice, lots of repetition trying to build more confidence into routines,” she said. “Trying to build more difficulty into routines and working on form and execution. Just cleaning up my routine so I can score higher and learn to compete with more confidence and precision.”
Matthews has been working on a new release in bars and a new combination pass that eventually will turn into a triple. She would like to add more difficulty to her vault as well. Matthews always works on her weaknesses and improves on her strengths.
“Physically, I do feel a lot of things have come pretty easy to me on bars,” she said. “I do struggle with consistency on bars but I’m definitely working hard on improving. I think bars and my artistry is a strength of mine. I really enjoy performing my floor and dance on beam and feel like I have good artistry which is beneficial to gymnastics.”
Just as important as her physical talent and work ethic, Matthews’ sound mental approach has been paramount to her success. The pressure to perform can be overwhelming for athletes at times and in the last couple of years Matthews realized she was putting undue stress on herself to perform.
Now, Matthews has a sound mental mindset when it comes to optimizing her routines in competition.
“I used to get so overwhelmed and nervous when I was younger and when I first started [at the] Elite [level] that honestly I would throw up,” she said. “It was really bad but I learned over the years to enjoy gymnastics because I won’t be able to do it forever.
“So I really try to enjoy each meet and enjoy the experience because it’s a great opportunity to be there and whatever happens, happens. I can’t change what I did in the past so I focus on the positives. I try not to get too serious because that overwhelming internal pressure is not beneficial in any way. You just get more nervous than you should be.”
Matthews loves her Airborne Gymnastics family, including coaches Cleo Washington, Tonya Piacente, Melissa Metcalf and Mel Ruggiero. She’s also grateful for her teammates, some of whom she’s known for most of her young life.
Matthews has some rich athletic bloodlines. Her dad, AJ Matthews (class of 1982), is a 2023 Los Gatos High School Athletic Hall of Fame inductee and was a four-year starter for the Occidental College men’s soccer team.
Nola’s mom, Kari Bertrand, is the most accomplished athlete in the family, earning NCAA All America honors for indoor track and field at Georgetown College. Bertrand is also a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier, the first in 1996 for the 1500-meter run and the second for the marathon in 2004.
Talk about some serious running talent. Perhaps then it’s no surprise Matthews has carved out her own identity in the athletic world. The middle of three children, Matthews’ older brother Shay is a senior at Gilroy High and the youngest brother Quinn is a seventh-grader at Solorsano Middle School.
Matthews’ immediate focus is doing well in the Elite selection camps, the first coming at the end of April. Then it’s onto the prestigious U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Aug. 24-27 at SAP Center in San Jose. Long term, Matthews plans on earning a scholarship to a NCAA Division I power conference school and make the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“To get that opportunity and experience, I’m just going to keep working hard the next couple of years and see what happens,” she said.
Matthews said she has a “terrible memory,” but noticed at a relatively early age she could pull off difficult maneuvers and wanted to keep learning new skills to improve.
“I guess that has led me down to the Elite path,” she said.