Standing at position in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2018, two gymnasts waited in the second and third place positions to receive their medals for the vault event in the Youth Olympics. It was the first time the two athletes had ever met.
Grabbing the bronze for Canada was Emma Spence, who joined Nebraska last year and was an immediate contributor as a freshman.
The silver belonged to Csenge Backsay, who notched Hungary’s only medal in any women’s gymnastics event in Buenos Aires. She too is now in Nebraska, preparing for her first season in Lincoln.
“Honestly, I never expected us to end up being teammates here,” Spence said. “We did go to another competition together in 2019 and we saw each other again and we were like friends. We were waiting for the next international competition to happen…but because Covid that didn’t happen. And now here she is.”
Whether coincidence or fate, the seeds were planted. Spence committed to Nebraska in November 2020 and her then-foe and now-friend with a little help, Spence helped open the door for Backsay to Lincoln.
“She reached out to me asking me how I got into NCAA,” Spence said. “I explained how I got here, how I reached out to coaches, emailed coaches and explained all that and I was like, ‘By the way maybe send an email to Nebraska.’
Spence helped put Backsay’s name out there. From her view, Spence first was a useful resource to understand what NCAA gymnastics actually was.
“I texted her… ‘What it looked like’, just what the university looked like,” Backsay said about Spence. “I didn’t know what to do in communicating with the coaches. She helped me a lot in this.”
The Budapest native was the 2021 vault national champion, beating out two of her teammates from her club, Postas, for the highest honors. During that time, Backsay was also wrapping up her quick recruitment with the Huskers.
“When I first talked to the coaches, I felt I could do gymnastics with them,” Backsay said. “I just felt the connection with them from the first time and that’s what impressed me.”
She first showed on Nebraska’s radar in January 2021 when, according to Nebraska women’s gymnastics head coach Heather Brink, she emailed the program.
Over the next couple of months, the exchanges heated up.
“Our interests peaked pretty quickly based on her skill level, ” Brink said. “Obviously, you want to make sure that’s a good fit. Coming from Hungary to the US is a big change…Even if they were the best athlete in the world, you don’t want to set them up for failure.”
By April 2021, Backsay had already committed to Nebraska. That marked another international gymnast for the Husker program, which currently holds four on the 2022-23 roster but it wouldn’t be for another year before she first arrived in Lincoln.
In fact, during the short recruiting period, all recruiting was done without any face-to-face interaction. Tours of the school and its facilities were conducted on Zoom video calls throughout her recruitment, which meant that she made a decision to commit without taking a step in Lincoln.
The reaction from her teammates, family and friends back home was different than expected.
“First they were so surprised because in Hungary it’s not a usual thing,” Backsay said. “When I told them more about this, they were so impressed and proud of me.”
Backsay is also on the Hungarian national artistic women’s gymnastics team, which puts women’s gymnasts into doing vault, floor, uneven bars and the balance beam. It’s not required that each gymnast on the team does every event in a competition but training for all four is necessary at the level. It’s a similar structure to NCAA gymnastics, in which only Backsay from the Hungary team is currently enrolled in any American university.
That may come as a surprise but there are only 62 Division I women’s gymnastics programs. There aren’t many spots and even fewer for those overseas. Brink even said that her job would be much different if her recruiting classes were always filled with international gymnasts.
“We just have to be mindful,” Brink said. “I can’t have a whole class of four kids coming from different countries because it would just make it even more challenging to build a team and a culture.”
Backsay finally visited Lincoln in January 2022. Her decision remained firm after the visit and the connection felt from the first time remained.
A noteworthy aspect of international gymnasts coming to Nebraska has been their continued participation in major international competitions. Spence just competed in the Commonwealth Games this summer, notching three bronze medals across the pond in England for Canada.
Her experience is typical for anyone coming from abroad for gymnastics, not having many overseas demands during the collegiate season. Still, it does happen as was the case with Spence the past season.
“I competed in my NCAA competition on the weekend and on Tuesday and Thursday I did a virtual meet for my elite stuff,” Spence said. “Usually it’s pretty separate… It’s a lot and I try not to think about everything I have to do.”
Backsay is no different.
A week before class started at Nebraska, the second-ever European Championships took place in Munich, Germany. The event featured nine Olympic events, including gymnastics that featured Nebraska’s own addition to Munich’s biggest event since the 1972 Olympics.
Her performance helped qualify Hungary for the World Championships, scoring a 13.800 in vault during the team competition and placing Hungary 7th overall in the event.
The day after the European Championships ended, Backsay was in her first college class.
“The first two or three weeks were really hard,” Backsay said. “I didn’t even know my name.”
That’s no exaggeration either as name orders flip from Hungary to the US. Back home, she’d be called Backsay Csenge but here it is Csenge Backsay. Another hurdle is the language barrier, which was a concern during those first couple of weeks in class.
“I was a little scared that I won’t do good academically, “ Backsay said. “I’ve never studied in a foreign language so I was a bit worried. Now I’m getting used to it and it’s a bit easier.”
A rhythm was found for her along with what she described as a very supportive environment. It was after all the reason she latched onto Nebraska quickly compared to other places.
Backsay is still a part of the Hungarian women’s national art gymnastics team and prepares for another overseas competition at the end of October.
Those aspirations are something that Brink and the program have been fully on-board with. The most significant part, though, for the coaching staff is that she is comfortable with pursuing those types of competition.
“We’ll help you but we want this to be your decision,” Brink said. “We don’t want this to be us telling you, ‘You have to do something.”
Her international tour continues to Liverpool, United Kingdom, competing in the Art Gymnastics World Championships. The dilemma she faces as she prepares for another overseas trip will be what happens when she comes back. Spence shared a similar experience to Backsay, but dealt with the dilemma mid-season.
“I competed my NCAA competition on the weekend and on Tuesday and Thursday I did a virtual meet for my elite stuff,” Spence said. “Usually it’s pretty separate… It’s a lot and I try not to think about everything I have to do.”
The preparation for the international meets is more intense than the preparation gone into for an NCAA season match.
“It’s a different system in Europe. It’s a different system in each country…NCAA is not a hugely popular thing over there,” Brink said. “From my understanding within the European system, there’s not a lot of mental health discussions. The auxiliary things that they don’t necessarily have here.”
While the level of competition is different from international events to the collegiate season, that doesn’t diminish the alternative route taken. The different environment has helped create a smooth transition for Backsay while also still competing for her home nation.
That environment is also what Spence credits with for her ability to still compete here in Lincoln and overseas.
“It’s a lot honestly. I schedule a lot,” Spence said. “Mental health is really big. I work with a psychologist here in the athletic department just to make sure that if I do feel stressed or overwhelmed because of everything I’m doing, I can manage that before it becomes a big issue.
The 2024 Olympics in Paris are also on the horizon, something that excites her but her focus isn’t solely on that. Once back from Liverpool, there will be time to decompress before starting a new chapter.
“I felt like this was a good opportunity for me,” Backsay said. “I get this chance so I’m going to take it.”