Every athlete experiences their own challenges throughout their careers. Some challenges may be physical, some may be mental. In my case specifically, my biggest challenge was overcoming adversity. I was lucky in the beginning years of my gymnastics career; just a few minor injuries but nothing too serious. My sophomore year in high school is when my unfortunate journey began.
On May 3rd of 2011, my day started out as any other one; I went to morning training, went to school, and then headed back to the gym for afternoon workouts. Towards the end of practice, in a freak accident involving teammates playing around, I was left with a broken neck in three places. At the time of the incident, I had no idea the extent of my injury because I assumed that a broken neck would leave someone paralyzed. It wasn’t until six hours and a completely numb arm later that we went to the emergency room and found out that I had fractured the front and back of my C1 and the side of my C6. I thought breaking my neck was the worst of the worst. But the results of having a broken neck affected me more mentally than physically.
I lost all of my scholarship offers due to being a liability and I was not sure if I would even continue gymnastics after that. Nonetheless, I gave it a shot and ended up with a full athletic scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I thought my dark days were over but unfortunately they were just getting started.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
During my freshman year at Nebraska, I began experiencing many health problems. I would be in and out of the hospital pretty much every week dealing with a new illness each time. It all began in November 2013 and I did not receive answers to the problem until January 2014. After taking test after test after test, my doctors finally decided just to test me for everything out there possible that could be making me sick. One night before flying out to Penn State for a competition, our team doctor gave me a call and told me:
You are not going to Penn State.
When I asked why, he stated that I was very very sick and did not know it yet. The next day, the doctors had diagnosed me with Primary Schlerosing Cholangitis, a liver disease that led to the death of NFL great Walter Peyton. I was terrified and also wondered why everything kept happening to me. Coaches and doctors instantly took me out of competition and even practice. I sat out and watched my teammates compete for months until they stabilized the condition of my liver. The entire duration that I sat out of practice and competition, our team doctor asked multiple times if I wanted to go on medical release. This meant that not only my NCAA career was over, but my gymnastics career itself. I continually refused because I knew that I had a lot left in me. By April 2014, the doctors released me back to practice and competition. I worked as hard as I could to make my way back into the lineups in time for NCAAs and it was a success.
But unfortunately, bad luck was still on my side. During the warm up for our first event (floor), one bad takeoff shattered my world once again. On the takeoff of my double-layout, my calf tore almost completely in half. My season was done and I felt completely defeated. But I made myself a promise that my sophomore year would be better.
Let's Try This Again
Sophomore year rolls around and I am feeling better than ever. I was beyond focused on my training, schoolwork, and health. The 2015 season was the best season of my gymnastics career as I scored to perfect 10s back to back and became an All-American on floor at NCAAs as well. My sophomore year went amazing and I also made it through without getting sick from my liver disease which made it even better. No hospital stays, no major injuries; I was in such a great place that I couldn’t wait to see what was next. Following my sophomore year, I had my sights on junior year and I was pushing for the same amount of success if not more.
Preseason of junior year was a little rough because I was having a terrible time dealing with plantar fasciitis in both of my feet. We completed hours upon hours of physical therapy but nothing seemed to be working. My trainer Tom heard about this preventative procedure to stop the plantar fascia from tearing. The operation got declined as our team surgeon told me my feet would not tear. In an attempt to make the pain more bearable, I received multiple injections in both of my feet. In the 2nd month after the season had started, it was again another bad takeoff that ended my season. When completing vault drills on the tumble track, my plantar fascia in my right foot completely tore in half on the take off. I did not immediately think my season was over, so we tried to push through the rest of the season without surgery. That attempt lasted for about only a month before I was forced to receive the surgery, and my junior season was officially over.
The Worst Is Yet To Come
After my junior year ended, I told myself that I was going to push to be my very best heading into my senior season. I headed back home for some family time before going back to school a week later and letting the grind begin. Once again, another milestone put a halt in my journey, but this one would change my life forever.
Only a day after arriving back home in Virginia, I received a call that no person in the world wants to get; my father had passed away. I was never a person to have mental blocks when it came to my goals in life, but this was a big one. My father was not going to be able to see me finish my collegiate career, he was not going to be there during my senior night, during my college graduation. So much was going through my head at that time. After his funeral a few days later, I returned to Nebraska and had an entire new outlook on life. I had learned that life was too precious and that you should shoot for the stars even though you are aiming for the moon. My father passing away gave me the courage and the drive to push past my limits and live my life to the fullest with no regrets.
Once I was cleared to train from my foot surgery, I was all in. I pushed harder than ever in conditioning, trained harder than ever, and worked harder in physical therapy to get my strength back. I was ready to make an impact during my final year. By the beginning of preseason, I was stronger, faster, in better shape, and more ready than I had ever been before. The first month of preseason flew by with ease as I was pretty much competition-ready. My senior year was looking beyond bright but per usual, another block put a bump in my road to success.
Same S*it, Different Day
On a Friday afternoon, we arrived to practice and our coach stated that we would only be completing a conditioning circuit then going home. As any normal person would be, I was pumped! Since we went in order by seniority, I was up first. I completed the first portion of the circuit faster than ever. I go onto the second part and that’s when it all crashed a burned. After jumping and planting my foot down on the catcher, I heard the same noise, and felt the same pain of an injury that ended my junior year. I stopped and did not move. The music was turned off and I yelled to my trainer, “The other one is gone.”
The plantar fascia in my left foot ruptured. I was never one to cry when I got injured but I couldn’t help it this time because I knew exactly what I was up against. In an attempt to salvage what was left of my senior year, we once again decided to opt out of surgery; and two months later once again, it was not a success. I was set to have surgery on November 17th.
Can I Catch A Break, Please?!
November 14th rolls around and we have our official visits on campus. We are showing them a great time and in the midst of having fun, I am focused in on the surgery I will be having in the upcoming week. On the night before the football game, I somehow fell ill and had an unbearable pain in my stomach. I went home to sleep it off but when I woke up the next morning, it was much worse. I contacted the team doctor as well as my trainer and both advised me to go to the emergency room. After two hours. The doctors came into the room and said that I had an ovarian cyst the size of a baseball and it was bursting. They then stated that I was set for emergency surgery that same night. I could not catch a break! They operated around 7:30 pm that night and I woke up the next morning to a phone call from our team doctor stating that they were flying my mother out to Nebraska to be with me because I had my foot surgery coming up in 2 days! And two days later, I was back on the operating table and now had an even more challenging road ahead of me. I won’t lie, having two surgeries in five days destroyed me. The recovery time doubled and that meant less training time for me.
I was cleared to begin light training the day after coming home from Christmas break. I had been sitting out healing for about three weeks and I felt completely out of shape and unprepared. We get back to practice and I swear there was a hex put on our team; everyone was getting injured. I did not initially have the thought of competing in the entire month of January, but my team needed me so I had to pull through. A week before our first competition, disaster struck again. I was performing a warmup vault and nearly sliced my left big toe completely off on the back end of a sheet of wood used under our mats for a more firm landing. The cut was down to the bone, which you could actually see. The cut would have required stitches but since a large piece of wood was removed from my toe, steri-stripping it together was the move. I was asked by my coaches if I could still compete; and with my toe literally taped onto my foot, I said yes.
The Pain Continues...
I competed in the first 2 meets which were a success, but pain began to creep up on me. The pain in my right foot that was operated on my junior year and left foot that had been operated on a month and a half prior was beginning to be unbearable. It was so bad to the point where I was not training three days during the week, but would compete every weekend. Even that was too much. My coaches and trainer began to talk to me about going on medical exemption. As much pain as I was in, I knew I couldn’t just give up like that. We all had to come up with a training schedule that would allow my feet to recover enough before practicing again. I began on training floor and vault once a week on Tuesdays, and bars twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That was all that my body would take and still handle competing on the weekends. It was not easy to sit and watch during the days I had to sit out and rest but I made peace with the situation my body was in.
But, of course, once I get a stable schedule going, my liver disease flares up again. It was the week before our Big 5 competition and since my immune system does not work properly due to my liver disease, a small cold turned into pneumonia. I was out the entire week before that competition and ended up competing in the meet. I felt beyond awful but I knew I had to pull through for my team. We had a shaky meet but we took home the Regular-Season Championship title and it was all worth it. From feeling beyond sick and looking like a ghost, to taking multiple puffs of my inhaler on national television after my floor routine, to putting a smile on my face even though all I wanted to do was lay down and cry, it was all worth it. Luckily that was the only flare up with my illness that I had.
Next Up, Wrists!
The next competition that tested my body was at the Big Ten Championships. Due to some cysts in my joints, my wrists were slipping out of place which took a toll on the uneven bars. I could not move my wrists in the positions that I needed to and ultimately told my coach that there was no way I could do the event. I had never been one to surrender to an injury but if I was going to make it through the season, I had to play it safe. After that competition, we did a lot of physical therapy and every treatment that was out there to make sure my wrists would hold up the rest of the season and they did. I made it all the way through the rest of the season pushing through pain but without any major incidents.
In the end, with the help of my coaches, teammates, doctors, training staff, friends, and family, I made it through the rest of the season and ended up becoming and All-American once again on floor and an All-American on vault. Injury wise, it was the toughest year I had yet. So many obstacles were thrown my way and it tested me both mentally and physically. I hit my breaking point plenty of times but I had plenty of help to make it through. I could not have done it without the huge support system that I had. And I cannot thank them all enough.
Post-gymnastics life has still been hectic since I am still dealing with the repercussions from all of my injuries I sustained. I have had surgery on both of my wrists since I retired and I am currently in the process of getting two more foot surgeries to reconstruct the arches of my feet which we know were destroyed during my junior and senior year. Coming back too soon on top of performing the high impact skills that I did completely reversed everything.
Push Your Limits
I know that the story of my biggest challenge was filled with a multitude of challenges, but it all revolved into one category. A lot of the time, people see the success that is achieved while on the competition floor, but what they do not see is the struggle that is behind it. I have always been an advocate of coming back from injuries since breaking my neck in 2011, but I am an even bigger advocate for pushing your limits and reaching success no matter what. It takes a lot to be an athlete, whether it is collegiate or professional. It is not the easiest road to be on but I promise you in the end, after going through challenge after challenge, hitting rock bottom, hitting your climax in your career, and dealing with every trial and tribulation thrown your way, it is all worth it.
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Also, thank you to Nebraska Athletics for allowing us to use their photos.