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Stunts and Circuses

By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Hugh Hamilton

Published Jan 1, 2010 8:00 AM

Color the ABC Family original series Make It or Break It Bruin blue and gold. Five former UCLA female gymnasts work on the show, on-screen or behind the scenes. They’re part of an ever-growing group of former Bruin gymnasts finding fortune, if not fame, as Hollywood stuntwomen and as acrobats in live shows like Cirque du Soleil.

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The Bruins of Make It or Break It, left to right: Tasha Schwikert, Ariana Berlin, Jordan Schwikert, Karin Silvestri-Coye and Natalie Padilla.

When we last saw them in August, the young female gymnasts of the ABC Family hit Make It Or Break It were locked in a fierce battle at the U.S.A. Gymnastics National Championships in Boston. Four of the best gymnasts at the Rocky Mountain ("The Rock") Gymnastics Training Center — Payson, Lauren, Emily and Kaylie — were competing not only against each other, but against hated rival team Denver Elite and its haughty star, Kelly Parker, for 12 spots on the national team.

Melodrama abounded, of course, both inside and outside the gym. Yet despite all the teenage angst, it's the athletic competition that forms the core of Make It or Break It and provides much of its appeal. And the show, which begins its second season on Jan. 11, relies on the help of some young women who are intimately familiar with that world: former members of the UCLA women's gymnastics team.

And they're not alone. There's an ongoing train for former female gymnasts that leads from Westwood straight to stunt work on the sound stages of Hollywood. Some Bruins have even carved out careers in the air as acrobats in Cirque du Soleil.

Keeping It Real

Five Bruins are currently involved with Make It or Break It, either on-screen or behind the scenes. Natalie Padilla '08, Jordan Schwikert '09 and Ariana Berlin '10 perform as stunt doubles for some of the lead characters; Tasha Schwikert '09 plays a gymnast on the show; and Karin Silvestri-Coye '98 serves as the show's gymnastics coordinator.

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Make It or Break It stunt double Ariana Berlin gets in some break-dancing practice on the floor.

"They've been such great partners for us," says Make It or Break It's creator/executive producer Holly Sorensen, "because they bridge a gap between not only real gymnastics and the illusion of Hollywood gymnastics, but between our show and the gymnastics world."

They also bring an amazing ability to flip, tumble and fly through the air. Natalie Padilla, 23, who bears a striking resemblance to the actress she doubles, Josie Loren ("Kaylie Cruz"), says it was Bruin Assistant Coach Jim Foody '97 who first got her and the Schwikert sisters on board with the show last December. Padilla has enjoyed the experience so much that she's decided to try her hand at stunt work full-time.

"I had no idea about stunt work as a career — when I watched movies, I didn't even think twice," says Padilla, who has put her plans to become a registered dietitian on hold. "I'm training in martial arts, and I'm trying to get into fighting. I'm also training for high falls, where you jump off a building onto an airbag."

When told how crazy this sounds, she laughs. "It's very fun," she says. "I would like to get into movie and TV [projects] that don't involve gymnastics so I can get a reputation for something other than gymnastics, but I'm glad I've gotten work from something I've trained my whole life for."

As far as show creator Sorensen is concerned, the girls are indispensable. "We refer to the gymnasts as the real stars of 'The Rock,' " she says. "They are so dazzling to watch that the most grizzled crew members have their jaws on the floor."

Life After College

Because there are no professional gymnastics leagues, stunt work is a gymnast's professional world, says Valorie Kondos Field '87, the legendary head coach of UCLA's perennial championship-contending women's gymnastics team. She jokes that with all the calls she receives from production companies looking for gymnasts, she could have made a lot of money as an agent by now.

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"Even if you never had aspirations to go into this type of work, you've trained your body for all these years and you're able to do things that the average person — even [other] athletes — can't do," she says. "How much fun is that to go on a set and do stunt work, even if you don't want to be a stunt person? It pays really well, it's fun and it's not something that you're going to be able to do forever."

Tasha Schwikert, 25, and her sister Jordan, 23, have taken that advice to heart.

Both former members of the U.S. national team, the sisters figured that when they finished their four years of UCLA eligibility in 2008, they would be done with gymnastics.

Then the pilot for Make It or Break It came along, and Tasha and Jordan got swept back into gymnastics. Tasha plays a background gymnast in gym scenes, and Jordan doubles for actress Ayla Kell ("Payson Keeler").

"I was ready to close the book on gymnastics, and six months later, it opens again," Jordan says. "I was like, hold on! I was cool with not putting on my grips anymore. Especially a leotard! But being on the show is fun, and it kind of replaces that adrenaline rush you get as an athlete. Nothing compares with actually competing, but shooting a scene feels good, and it's nice to get those little moments back."

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Karin Silvestri-Coye displays the agility that has gotten her stunt jobs on countless films and TV shows.

Tasha agrees that being on the show is a great experience, but she hasn't veered from her original plans to go into sports journalism. "I've always wanted to be a sports reporter, and I still see myself there," she says. "I'm just working toward that."

Ariana Berlin, 22, enjoys her work as a stunt double on Make It or Break It, but dancing remains her true love. A professional break dancer with World Famous Crew, Berlin finished her gymnastics eligibility in April 2009 and will graduate from UCLA in June with a degree in world arts and cultures.

She's been able to squeeze stunt work on the show between professional gigs with her dance crew and jobs that her agent finds for her. Recently she shot a commercial for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, her first.

"I really want to be a director and an editor, but dancing doesn't last forever, and the paycheck-by-paycheck lifestyle kind of scares me," Berlin says. "I don't know how much better directing and editing is, but it's a major passion of mine and I figure if I'm happy doing what I'm doing, then it's OK."

Kondos Field thinks it's healthy for the girls to take on stunt gigs while they're pursuing other careers. "You can always go back to school, but you can't always dance," she says. "That's how I feel about them when they graduate. You go do Cirque, because you're not always going to be able to do that. There's nothing in this world that can take the place of performing, so if you really want to do that and that's in your soul, go do it."

Hollywood Swingin'

Other former Bruin gymnastics stars who have found stunt work in Hollywood include Dee Fischer Murphy '96 and Kiralee Hayashi '00, who was featured in a popular viral video for Gatorade, playing a ball girl who scales a wall to catch a foul ball. And Karin Silvestri-Coye, 33, has managed to combine a steady job as gymnastics coordinator for Make It or Break It with an extremely successful career as a stunt woman.

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Tasha Schwikert plays a background gymnast on Make It or Break It, and once even had a speaking role.

A member of the UCLA gymnastics team that won a national championship in 1997, Silvestri-Coye's plans to become a sports psycholo-gist "took a left turn" when Kondos Field told her about the chance to work on a new show about college athletes called Push.

"The call was for a 5'6" gymnast, and I'm kind of a giant in the gymnastics world," says Silvestri-Coye, laughing. She got the job, which was soon followed by stunt work in dozens of TV shows, films and national commercials. Her first big break came in 1998, when she landed a Super Bowl commercial while still a UCLA student. The commercial, which featured actress Ali Landry doing flips and the splits in a laundromat while catching Doritos between her teeth, is still remembered fondly across the Internet.

Of course, it was Silvestri-Coye doing all those gymnastics moves, and since then she has appeared in Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Serenity, Alias, Mission: Impossible III, Spider-Man 3, 24, Angels & Demons, Medium, Dollhouse, NCIS: Los Angeles, and How I Met Your Mother.

When doubling for actress Kate Beckinsale in 2004's Van Helsing, Silvestri-Coye recalls being particularly tired while filming a scene in Prague. It wasn't long before she was feeling much more energized, however. "Hugh [Jackman] and I had to roll around on the ground, and I was like, 'Oh, my job's not so bad!' " she says, laughing.

Silvestri-Coye's teammate on the 1997 UCLA national championship team, Heidi Moneymaker, has been doing stunts full-time since 2001. She joined Silvestri-Coye on several films and TV shows and has also appeared in Fast & Furious, Star Trek, Hancock, Rambo, National Treasure, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, NCIS, Damages, My Name is Earl and The O.C.

Her little sister, Renae, also is a gymnast who will be doubling actress Chelsea Hobbs ("Emily Kmetko") on Make It or Break It this season — ironically, the same actress that Heidi doubled for in the pilot episode.

"I'm very lucky to be working quite frequently," says Moneymaker, 31, who has also done commercials for Acura, Sonic and Radio Shack. "I've even had speaking roles. Usually they're just one line before you get blown up, but I did have a guest-starring role on CSI: New York." For that one, Moneymaker bungee-jumped off a bridge wearing a nude bodysuit.

Going Live

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Natalie Padilla shows her style on the set of Make It or Break It.

Perhaps not as large-scale, but just as exciting to watch, are the live shows. Malia Jones '04 has performed in La Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas, as has Carmen Tausend '99. Kristen Maloney '05 and Stella Umeh '99 have both performed with Cirque du Soleil.

Yvonne Tousek '05 is in the middle of a 16-month stay in Japan, where she is a regular cast member of Cirque du Soleil's show, Corteo. Like the other cast members, Tousek, 29, plays several roles in each of the eight to 10 shows performed per week, including "Tournik," in which she and some of the other girls do simple gymnastics elements on men's high bars, and "Animation," which involves mingling with the crowd, in character, to help set the mood for the show.

Her most dangerous act, "Bouncing Beds," requires her and five other acrobats, dressed in children's pajamas, to jump over each other between two trampoline beds.

"I do a single flip backwards on the bed and fly backwards, upside down, arriving in a handstand on the headboard. It's dangerous because the head rail is a skinny little bar, so missing my hands on it could mean a big injury," she says. "The first time I did it in the show, I wasn't sure how people would react. But when I heard the audience gasp when I arrived in the handstand, it was the most exhilarating feeling."

Like most of the other women, Tousek had never even considered a career in entertainment. Yet once she tasted it, she was hooked. "From the very first time I saw Cirque du Soleil, I was intrigued by it, but I could never have guessed that this would become my career," she says. "Now, nothing feels more natural. Not only is it the best playground on Earth, it is always challenging and inspiring, and the possibilities are endless."