Sonja Ellefson has studied gymnastics since age 3.

“I was always doing cartwheels, handstands, and bouncing on the furniture. My Mom got sick of it, so she stuck me in classes,” says this young woman who first enrolled in gymnastics in Edina, Minnesota.

Now the 21-year-old senior, who’s majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, is co-captain of the MIT women’s varsity gymnastics team where she’s a big star.

As a freshman, she qualified for the Division III nationals and earned all-American honors for being an all-arounder, meaning she competed in all four standard gymnastics events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. The next year, she qualified for Division II nationals and earned all-American honors, making her the only Division III athlete in the country to qualify.

“It’s so wonderful to be part of a team. You make such great friends. I’ve gained more from being on a team than from anything else I’ve done at MIT, including my schoolwork.

“Athletics teaches you so much about yourself,” she adds. “It teaches you how to perform under pressure, how to handle stress, and how you react when you’re nervous. It teaches you how to take care of your body, and it teaches you dedication, determination, and leadership.

“Sports just builds your whole self-esteem. The confidence you gain spills over into life,” says Ellefson, adding, for example, that after she learned to do a tricky double back flip, her self-confidence soared. “You think, if I can do that, I can do any kind of schoolwork, no matter how hard.”

But, she says, perhaps the greatest gain of participating in athletics at MIT has been becoming a more expansive person, thinking not just about herself, but of others. “Now I want to excel, not just to benefit myself, but because it helps the whole team.”