Falling out of Routine
Gymnasts are known for wanting perfection. Anything less is seen as a mistake or failure. This perfection, whether you have it or not, is something that sticks with you forever, well after your final salute to the judges. It’s a funny thing, spending the first 20 years of your life chasing something deemed “unachievable,” especially when the rest of society tells you that it's okay to not be perfect. Sometimes you lose sight of yourself and your happiness, sometimes you’re just trying to live up to the expectations of others.
The interesting part about my gymnastics career is that I don’t have a specific memory of when I began. That’s probably another funny thing about starting a sport when you’re only two-years-old. The sport manifested itself differently early on. My mom’s “Mommy & Me” class had me run around on soft mats, letting her relax while I tried to land another flip.
Of course, then I started doing real gymnastics. And I did it so much, that it became all I knew. I didn’t know who I was without it. “Sorry, I have practice” became too frequent a phrase–spending 24 hours per week in the gym since 5th grade would do it to you. I didn’t have free time. But, that was my entire life, and I was hooked on chasing perfection.
Once I started high school, I was already being recruited by colleges. Gymnastics has always been a sport where you are recruited young, since so many gymnasts peak at a younger age compared to other sports. I had transferred back to public school my sophomore year of high school, during a pivotal time in my athletic career. While my friends were concerned about Friday night football games and movie dates, I had already begun touring college campuses. By 15 years old, I had already committed to my dream school, Iowa State University, on a full-ride scholarship. For once, it felt like I was finally perfect. I was soon to be a collegiate athlete. But that feeling didn’t last long, and sure enough it felt like my grip on perfection had slipped from my hands.
I started doing real gymnastics. And I did it so much, that it became all I knew. I didn’t know who I was without it.
At the National Invitational Tournament in 2015, I went up for my beam routine. As I executed each skill, I felt so confident that I was nailing this routine. And I was, until it was time for the dismount. As I stuck the landing on my backwards 1 and ½ twist dismount, I felt a strange pop in my left leg. But I was too scared to react–if I did, I would get a deduction. So I kind of just stayed where I was and saluted to the judges, all of whom looked at me with very disturbed expressions. When I walked off the mat, I realized I could not walk on my left leg. A few steps later it gave out, causing me to crumple to the floor. The medics at the competition informed me that they believed I had just torn my ACL, to which I replied, “Okay, how long is that recovery? Like six weeks?” My mom, who had traveled to the competition with me, had just texted my dad that I had torn the ACT ligament in my knee. We had no idea what any of this meant.
I found myself struggling to get back into pre-injury shape. I felt nothing close to good. I felt very imperfect.
As ACL tears go, we found out the hard way that it would be between nine to 12 months until I was fully cleared to compete in gymnastics again. I was fueled by my desire to compete in college, with my coaches still signing me on NLI Day. I had so many people that I didn’t want to disappoint; there was simply no room to fail. However, gymnastics is a very hard sport to stay away from for lengthy amounts of time and I found myself struggling to get back into pre-injury shape. I felt nothing close to good. I felt very imperfect.
Fast forward to my time at Iowa State University. I had amazing teammates who supported me as I continued to get into competition mode, and I was itching for a chance to be back out on the floor after a year long hiatus. I was doing everything right--I was training like crazy, making sure every skill was perfected, I felt like I could do my routine in my sleep. But competition started to approach and I wasn’t any closer to competing. Unfortunately, this is where my story takes a turn. What I was battling was more than just physical–my quest for perfection began to take over the way I viewed everything around me.
During my sophomore year, I started to slip into depression. It seemed like small details at the time, but I just wasn’t my giggly, happy-go-lucky self anymore. I was already being treated for anxiety, but now I was seeing the team psychologist on a weekly basis and just bawling my eyes out. Why did I feel so worthless? Was I really not good enough to be a collegiate athlete? I had no answers for any of these feelings; my teammates did everything they could to help me but nothing worked. With my parents back in Winston-Salem, I was 1,000 miles away from home, feeling completely isolated. It was halfway through my spring semester in 2018 that my parents made me consider the unthinkable: transferring back home to a university in North Carolina and giving up the sport altogether. Thinking this would never happen, I submitted transfer applications to UNC and NC State, just hoping to give my parents some peace of mind.
I honestly forgot about my applications for almost two months, until in April of 2018 when I had to accept the fact that if I ever wanted to compete in gymnastics, it wouldn’t be for my current school. By this time, I was completely hopeless. I was so terrified to leave my friends and even more terrified to give up a full-ride. But then, I had a revelation. I asked myself if my happiness was really valued at the same price as my tuition. By making myself consider this, I was finally able to accept that sometimes, good things fall apart so better things can come together. I finally made the decision it was time to start a new chapter for myself. After I came to this conclusion, I received an email from UNC. I was shocked to discover that I had gotten in. This news shook me out of a feeling of unhappiness and frustration. It was the sign I needed to realize my own self worth. It was a sign of better things to come.
I asked myself if my happiness was really valued at the same price as my tuition.
Now, keep in mind this was all happening in April of 2018. There were three weeks left of school, including finals, and here I was deciding if I was going to uproot everything and transfer. One thing held me back from solidifying any decisions: I wanted to see if there was any possibility that the UNC gymnastics team might have an available spot on the team. Our head coach, Derek Galvin, had recruited me in high school and was friends with my club coaches, so I was just hoping he would remember who I was when I called. I remember the phone call so vividly; it was on a Wednesday and I was pacing back and forth in my bedroom as the phone rang, just hoping that he would answer. To my luck, Coach Galvin answered my call, and to my surprise, remembered who I was. I started explaining my desires to transfer. After I mentioned this, he was regretful to inform me that admissions for transfers had already been closed. Then I explained how I had already applied and received admission to UNC. I will never forget his response: “Oh, well that changes everything!” Then, he told me to send him some training videos the next day at practice. By Friday, I was offered a spot on the UNC Gymnastics team. I called my mom and dad to tell them the life-altering news, with tears of joy emitting from both ends of the call. I was finally coming home to North Carolina, with a chance to start over.
The next two weeks were a complete blur–I was taking all my finals, packing up an apartment to move back across the country, and saying goodbye to my teammates that had become my family. To this day, I am still in contact with all my friends from ISU. I will always be thankful for my Iowa State family and all my experiences there; I truly would not be who I am today without them. I was planning to attend Summer Session 2 at UNC, so I had a little over a month to prepare for my next move, albeit this time I was only one hour away from home. The girls at UNC on the gymnastics team accepted me with open arms and helped me transition into my new environment, which is something that I have never been able to put into words: just how grateful I am for that sense of sisterhood.
My junior year had officially started by this point. Training was intense, but going really well. I added uneven bars back into my training, as well as continuing my training on beam and floor. Preseason was a little tainted though–I ended up having a bone spur in my ankle that had to be removed. After a six week rest period, I was back in full force, not letting this minor bump in the road prevent me from finally fulfilling my dream of competing in collegiate gymnastics. My dedication paid off; by the beginning of January, I was making appearances in both the bars and beam lineups. In February, I scored my career high tally of 9.8 on the balance beam, a feeling I will never forget as long as I live. I had done it–I had shown everyone how worthy I was, and that I would never stop persevering.
With our last home meet approaching, I was probably in the best routine shape in my college career. I was already in the bars and beam rotations, and on senior night, our last home meet of the season, I was planning on completing my floor routine as an exhibition. I was on top of the world; all the puzzle pieces were perfectly falling into place. On February 22nd, 2019, we were warming up in Carmichael for our competition that evening against the University of New Hampshire. I was feeling really great that day, both mentally and physically. I had nailed my beam warmup and had moved over to the uneven bars with the team to begin our 15 minute warmup.
When I landed, I felt an eerily familiar pop, like a gunshot had just gone off in the arena.
It started just as any bar warmup had in the previous meets that season. I had hit my routine on the first try and was feeling very confident. However, I wanted to repeat my dismount so that I had a more controlled landing, meaning that the judges would have less opportunity to take deductions on my skills. To me, this was a skill I had been doing since I was 12 years old. It was nothing. I went for my last turn, swinging my stalder and preparing to release for the double back dismount. When I landed, I felt an eerily familiar pop, like a gunshot had just gone off in the arena. My teammates heard it too, 30 feet away, across the apparatus. In that instant, I didn’t have to look down at my knee or at my coach’s face of shock to know what had just occurred. Almost four years later, I completely blew my ACL ligament for the second time.
By this point, I just wanted someone to pinch me and wake me up from this awful nightmare. As I was taken to the medical table, all I could think about was the fact that my teammates still had two events to warm up and an entire meet to compete in. So, I had to decide right then and there if I was going to pity myself or be there to support my teammates. While I sat on the sidelines cheering my team on during balance beam warm ups, I had another life-changing moment with one of my coaches, Marie Denick. Despite everything that had just happened in the past 30 minutes, she told me that I was meant to be on this team and that I was one of the hardest workers she knew in the sport. She continued by saying that all the coaches and gymnasts were thankful that I chose to pursue my journey at UNC. As I try to describe what this validation meant to me, I simply cannot put it into words. I still tear up thinking about that conversation–it is a moment that has continued to push me forward throughout this entire process.
That next week, we confirmed what I had already known when I landed that bar dismount. I had completely torn my ACL, as well as my medial meniscus. I also had severe cartilage damage, resulting in an osteoarticular transfer system (“OATS”) procedure. Thanks to Google and the awesome medical staff here, I learned that I basically had a “pothole” of cartilage missing in my knee, for lack of better words. This meant that my surgeon had to use cartilage from the fat pad in my knee, where excess cartilage is stored, and transfer it into the “pothole.” This area was roughly 10 mm in diameter, about the size of a small coin. Thankfully, my surgery was incredibly successful, despite my OATS procedures being one of the largest cases my surgeon has ever had to repair–you rock, Dr. Spang!
After surgery was complete, it was time to face the harsh reality. Because of the severity of my case and the fact that I was approaching my senior year, the chances of me being ready by the beginning of the season were incredibly slim. It took everything in me not to let this taint my rehab process. I wanted to be present for my teammates as much as possible; if I wasn’t going to give my all to my rehab program, how could I expect my team to be there for me? In my mind, it’s like getting up if you’ve fallen on a skill in the middle of a routine–you just keep going. So, that’s exactly what I did. Things seemed to be going relatively well in my rehab process, despite the nagging pain in my knee that never really went away. I kept fighting for as long as I could, until my doctor told me something I had long feared. In November 2019, I was told I had a screw causing a stress fracture in my tibia, which was the source of my pain. This meant that another surgery was needed to remove the screw and replace the hole with bone cadaver. Furthermore, it meant I would not get my last salute on the competition floor during my senior season. I was officially a retired gymnast.
yes, things will happen. No, not everything will go the way I plan. But what matters more is that I pick myself back up and keep fighting.
Despite all of this, I decided that I wasn’t going to let my gymnastics career become defined by the imperfections and hardships I faced. By accepting these bitter facts, I was able to embrace the controllables. I was able to find happiness outside of the gym. Most of all, I was able to enjoy one of the best seasons UNC Gymnastics has seen in recent years. It didn’t matter that I was not contributing routines to the team score–I was able to help my teammates with encouragement and energy. When the 2020 season ended suddenly because of the pandemic, I felt sorrow not for myself, but for my team and other student-athletes across the country. I was at peace, knowing that I had done my last gymnastics routine long ago. However, thousands of student-athletes today are having to find their new identities in the hardest of times.
Closure is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when it is imperfect or not “happily ever after.” It’s something that’s needed in every aspect of life. I know that I will carry these lessons with me forever, boring my kids about my glory days. I even have the old proverb, “fall down seven, stand up eight” tattooed on me. I live with this daily reminder, knowing that, yes, things will happen. No, not everything will go the way I plan. But what matters more is that I pick myself back up and keep fighting. Perseverance is not something you are given. You have to earn it.
I encourage everyone to let your imperfections build you up. Let the hard times show you are stronger than the challenge itself. By accepting all aspects of my situation, I have learned that I am exactly where I am meant to be. And that has made all the difference.
- Emily White