Gymnast soars in piloting program

B.S. Professional Piloting, Class of 2016
Hometown: Schwarzenbach am Wald, Bavaria, Germany
Fun Fact: In her early career, she trained with the German national gymnastics team.

9.875, 9.725, 4.0

I AM UAA: Marie-Sophie Boggasch. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
I AM UAA: Marie-Sophie Boggasch.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Those are just a few of Marie-Sophie Boggasch’s scores from her time at UAA (on vault, on bars and on her cumulative grade point average, respectively). They’re impressive numbers for any student, but more remarkable when you consider this international student/Seawolf athlete/top-tier student is also a professional piloting major with a campus job as a flight instructor. As one of the few student-athletes in the piloting program, she spends most of her time in the air—sometimes flying over the Anchorage Bowl, other times hurtling between uneven bars.

Nearing the end of high school in Germany, Marie-Sophie sent out inquiries to a few American schools and Paul Stoklos—UAA’s 30-years-and-counting gymnastics coach—was among the first to respond. And with a full scholarship.

“It was definitely the best offer [and] Alaska sounded adventurous,” Marie-Sophie recalled. When she told her parents about UAA, they had one immediate response. “First, we had to Google,” she laughed.

The first time Marie-Sophie ever set foot in the States was just two years ago, on her recruiting trip to UAA. Every NCAA-eligible athlete is allowed two days to visit each prospective team, and the 48-hour limit holds even for international students with days of travel time. Thankfully, Anchorage made a quick impression.

“I flew back to Germany, packed all of my stuff and flew back to Alaska,” she said.

It was a busy first few days. Her parents joined her for the big move North and were equally impressed. “They said ‘We feel good about leaving you here’ because I already knew I had five people I can call at any point, and that was after two weeks being here,” Marie-Sophie noted. “And also my parents knew they could call those five people.”

Her folks have already returned… twice. “They love it here and I think they would move in a heartbeat if it would be possible,” she noted. “Especially my dad. He’s all over Alaska.”

As a student-athlete, she’s been able to see a lot more of the country—and appreciate Alaska a lot more as well. With meets in six states just this season—from Knoxville to Milwaukee to Colorado Springs—she has plenty of chances to see how American America can be. “I got to travel through the Lower 48 and then I got back here and, well, this isn’t even American,” she laughed.

Finding flying

As a piloting major on the gymnastics team, Marie-Sophie doesn’t stay grounded very often. (Photo by Sam Wasson/UAA Athletics)
As a piloting major on the gymnastics team,
Marie-Sophie doesn’t stay grounded very often.
(Photo by Sam Wasson/UAA Athletics)
Marie-Sophie’s first few days were full of surprises. She met other German student-athletes almost immediately, and quickly discovered UAA had an entire aviation campus she had missed on her 48-hour visit. It was incredible news.

Flying has always been on Marie-Sophie’s list of dream jobs. “Since I could think, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. She later learned astronauts spend most of their careers rooted on planet earth and had a change of heart. “[I thought] Well, that’s boring, I’m going to be a pilot.”

Growing up in Germany, she planned to enroll in a training program with Lufthansa, the country’s national carrier. She viewed UAA as a four-year detour from her eventual aviation plans, and declared a major in international studies. “Lufthansa isn’t offered in Alaska anywhere, so I thought I can take it easy, be here for fun and have a nice college experience,” she commented.

“Then I came up here and saw this huge aviation complex—we just drove by randomly on my second day here and I thought, well I didn’t even know they have this program here!” The day before the semester started, she dropped every one of her original classes, called her coach to update him on the big change, and signed up for a full slate of aviation courses. “I basically changed my major even before I went to college,” she joked.

Now a junior in the program, she’s made a home on the aviation campus and found one of the most unique student jobs on campus: flight instructor. She works 20 hours per week, and spends the bulk of that time riding shotgun in UAA’s fleet while training younger piloting students.

A day on the job could take Marie-Sophie almost anywhere in central Alaska. As students advance in the program, they extend their flights from local loops to 50 nautical mile treks and even 250 nautical mile straight-shots—a distance reached by flying to Kenai, then Fairbanks, then Anchorage in a day.

The long flights do have one added benefit—restaurants on the road. After touching down in Homer, for example, she has a favorite pizza place on the shoreline staked out for dinner—Starvin’ Marvin’s, just a quick walk from the airstrip. She enjoys those moments most, when she’s not observing for errors and ticking off checklists. “That’s just kind of a nice break for [students],” she said. “They get to see “Hey, we’re actually here to enjoy our day today.”

Not surprisingly, a student-athlete with a campus job requiring near-daily flights across Alaska must be exceptionally busy. Every morning, Marie-Sophie starts her day at 7:30 a.m. for a four-hour practice. Next, she has just 30 minutes to get to aviation campus. Her classes this semester start at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. depending on the day, and the time between practice and class is spent flight instructing or working on her own multi-engine training—the next level in the piloting program. Occasionally, she even takes students on night flights after class.

It’s a constant grind, but her schedule is split between her two favorite things—flying planes and flying in the gym. She radiates calm, control and enthusiasm—all ideal traits for a gymnast—and, through it all, she’s maintained a 4.0 GPA (one of only three gymnasts in the entire conference to hold such a mark).

Gymnastics life

Marie-Sophie completes a routine at last season’s home meet against UC-Davis. (Photo by Sam Wasson/UAA Athletics)
Marie-Sophie completes a routine at last season’s home meet
against UC-Davis.  (Photo by Sam Wasson/UAA Athletics)
Since starting gymnastics at age 7, Marie-Sophie has only ever taken a three-month break from the sport.

“I missed it so much,” she admitted. “Since then I’m kind of in that gymnastics life.”

The constant quest for the next level—much like professional piloting—is what draws her to the sport. “I need challenges in my life. It can’t just be boring, and gymnastics is definitely not boring,” she said, reflecting on that one three-month break from gymnastics. “I just missed pushing myself every day and going to my limits.”

Of all the Seawolf sports, the gymnastics team is perhaps most energized about the new Alaska Airlines Center. For the past 30 years, the team practiced on the other end of Anchorage, scraping ice off vans and dragging all their equipment across town whenever they hosted a meet on campus. Now, they have an entire gym exclusively for the team.

Her primary events at UAA are vault and bars, and this year has potential to be a record-setter.

“[Bars is] the event where some of the athletes struggle the hardest to be competitive. That happens to be her best event,” said coach Paul Stoklos of Marie-Sophie’s potential this season. “She’s working very hard to improve herself … Marie has probably the most difficult bar routine we’ve had. If she can do the routine, it would be the most difficult routine we’ve had an athlete throw.”

Anchorage residents have six chances to catch the team this year. The Seawolves debut at the new arena with a free-admission intrasquad meet Dec. 13, and end the season with a bang in March. They’ll host the conference meet for the first time in program history. “Now that we have the facility, we can really show it off,” Marie-Sophie smiled.

Graduation is still a few semesters away, but Maria-Sophie already has plans to stick around Anchorage. Visa issues aside, her dream jobs all include piloting small aircraft throughout the 49th state. Maybe she’ll fly supplies and medicine to Bush communities. Perhaps she’ll pilot a private jet. One thing she knows for sure—the early Lufthansa plan has lost its luster. “The Alaska Bush flying is really what got me,” she said. “I don’t really want to go into airlines anymore. I’m better off if I have a little jet airplane and [don’t] have to deal with 300 passengers in the back.”

Until then, she has three more incredibly busy semesters ahead. But whether she’s corkscrewing around the uneven bars or coasting into mountain passes, chalking her hands in the gym or behind controls at the hangar, she hopes to make the most of Alaska for years to come.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement. This article originally appeared in Green & Gold News on Nov. 19, 2014.

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Gymnast soars in piloting program
Gymnast soars in piloting program
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