Isabelle Connor hates midterms like any other first year. Calculus and Physics stress her out, but the pressure falls flat when compared to the bright lights and big stage of the Tokyo Olympics. 

Connor competed in the Olympic games alongside her six teammates on the rhythmic gymnastics team. There, Connor became UC Santa Cruz’s first olympian in the school’s 56 year history. While UCSC does not have a competitive or club gymnastics team, Connor was drawn to the university, where she now majors in astrophysics. 

“I originally wanted to get out of California and didn’t apply to any California schools. But after being in Chicago for four years training, I realized that I miss California, my family here, and my close friends,” Connor said.  “The only UC that I was actually interested in was UCSC just because the campus is really unique.” 

While spending time apart was a new challenge for the only-child family, Izzy and her parents, Ellen and Tom,  still reminisce about the days of Izzy’s formative athletics. 

When talking via Zoom with City on a Hill Press, Ellen lit up upon being asked about Izzy’s childhood. After light prompting from Tom, she descends into a motherly anecdote.

“She was very active. She was running around all the time, and I had to have my hand on her constantly when she started walking and running because she would just dart out,” Ellen said. “One time on the beach she took off running and wouldn’t come back, she just ran and ran and ran. At first we thought, ‘Oh that’s kind of cute.’ But then we called her and she wouldn’t come back, she just kept going and going and going.”

Just two and a half at the time, the energy translated off the beach and into youth gyms and ballet studios alike. Ellen remembers having to chase baby Izzy running laps around mommy and me classes while every other kid sat still. Izzy confidently joked that all those other kids turned out average. 

But not every sport caught Izzy’s boundless energy, as soccer, tennis, and horseback riding all failed to hold her attention. So, to gymnastics she went, bouncing back and forth between artistic and rhythmic disciplines before finally falling in love with and settling on the latter. 

Once serious competitions began for 10 year old Izzy, she shined; quickly winning the interest of coaches with her unbridled energy, voracious work ethic, and natural athleticism.  

Rhythmic gymnastics focuses more on dance, agility, flexibility, and coordination.

Artistic Gymnastics is more based on precise movements fueled by upper body strength.

“A lot of the other kids just didn’t try as hard as she did,” Ellen recalled. “In the gym she was very dedicated, focused, and hardworking and she loved doing it. The coaches noticed.”

And they kept noticing. 

But, it wasn’t easy. Izzy started training at age nine, which is later than most Rhythmic Gymnasts who begin seriously training as early as five. She didn’t even make the national team until age 17, while most successful gymnasts have made the team by their freshman year of high school. 

“It wasn’t like this meteoric rise all the way up to the Olympics, we didn’t know until [this past] June if she was going,” said Tom. “All that doubt and all that, ‘Will it happen? Is fate gonna work our way?’ But what she did was she just kept her eyes on the prize and kept doing her personal best and being a good teammate and hoping that it would all work out. As were we.” 

But off to the Olympics she went after three long years of training in Chicago, while Tom and Ellen went to NBC’s event for parents in Florida. 

Team U.S.A.’s Rhythmic Gymnastics team finished eleventh and missed the finals, but the culmination of a lifetime of work for Izzy still represented a step forward for Team U.S.A., who performed better than they have in the last 40 years.  

“I was very happy. I wouldn’t say that we did perfectly, but we still did the best that the U.S. has done at the Olympics in the Rhythmic Gymnastics group,” Connor said. “Under the pressure that is the Olympics, especially your first Olympics, I was very happy with the way that my team finished.” 

As the bright lights dimmed, and the planes shuttled the athletes home, Izzy Connor had to prepare to become a freshman. Sure, she might have gotten campus tours and athletic director attention, but the 21 year old Manhattan Beach native stepped onto campus without a crystal clear direction for the first time in a long time. 

“I definitely have a fire in my soul that has not gone away. It’s difficult because I don’t quite know where to put the fire yet,” said Izzy, laughing at her own unique predicament. “I find myself really wanting to keep myself as busy as possible and doing as much as I can to feed that little fire in my soul. But it’s also nice because I’m actually enjoying life. I was enjoying life before but I’m enjoying a slower pace of life and meeting a lot of really awesome people” 

While she searches for a place to put that fire, she’s already making an impact on some of those around her. Third-year basketball player and friend Tyler Otterlei spoke after a practice about what it was like meeting Izzy. 

“It’s just great getting to know an athlete that has competed on that high of a level,” said Otterlei. “As a team I think we can learn a lot from her, and her lifestyle and her passions and how she’s driven and motivated in everything she does. It’s just great having someone like that to talk to all the time. I’m really excited and happy I met her this year.”

She’s left excited friends, enthused professors, and enamored coaches in her wake, so what’s next for one of the greatest athletes in UCSC history? Will the illustrious Izzy Connor be at the Olympics in 2024?

“I don’t know yet, I don’t know yet,” Connor laughed. “We’ll see.” 

The slugs can’t wait to find out.