Success vs. Awards
“I’m here for my team, I’m here to make a difference. I’m at UNC for a reason, and I refuse to let my gymnastics career pass me by, and I just watch.”
My name is Julia Knower, I’m a sophomore on the UNC gymnastics team from Mandeville, Louisiana, and I’m here to explain the story behind that journal excerpt and how the events that prompted me to write it changed my view on gymnastics, relationships, and genuine happiness. This is my journey of learning success isn’t measured by awards. Happiness isn’t based on scores.
Going to UNC was a dream come true. I had no idea this university was even in the cards for me, but there I was: A freshman – competing against Auburn at the very first meet of the 2022 season – excited to be representing one of the best universities in the country, hungry for the competition, and completely oblivious to the challenges that would follow.
I could only focus on the highlights of my season, but that’s not the reason why I decided to share my story. Too many people base success on the highlights, the awards, and the recognition. Too many people believe that success cannot come from failure.
You can have doubts, worries, and stresses from your personal life and still be a successful athlete. You’re human.
Every single person experiences these things, and there’s no reason to pretend they aren’t prevalent, especially in collegiate athletes’ lives.
Being put in the lineup as a freshman was an honor. I took pride in every routine, and as a young collegiate athlete, I didn’t want to disappoint my new team. I vividly remember the very first time I fell at a meet. I was on the last event, on my last tumbling pass, and I was the last person to go. Not a great way to end the meet individually or for the team.
Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports, so mistakes are inevitable. I’ve known that for years now, but college was different. I had my team rooting for me, fans, little girls…it can seem overwhelming if you think about it too much.
I was angry with myself. I doubted my abilities after the fall. I couldn’t accept the fact that failure was a part of the journey, and regardless of what had happened and what was to happen, I had a team full of 20+ girls who loved me and a coaching staff that only wanted the best for me.
They could see my potential even when I wouldn’t let myself see it.
I remember one specific practice a few weeks after my first fall. I was on beam, and my coach knew me well enough to see something was wrong. I was stressed and anxious, which wasn’t like me. She pulled me aside and asked me what was up. I told her I had started to set goals for myself at meets that were based solely on scores. She chuckled, which took me off guard for a second, but what she said afterward is something I’ll never forget. She laughed and said, “Your goal should be to have fun.” After hearing a D1 coach tell me that, my mindset started to shift. I’m dedicating all this time and sacrificing so much: what’s the point if I’m not fully enjoying it? I dedicated a lot of time to switching into a different mindset,
but it was hard because I had thought a certain way since starting competitive gymnastics at age 7.
I had spent the rest of the regular meet season shifting the way I thought about the sport of gymnastics, and by the last meet, I was ready to go for competition. We were at the University of Georgia, and surprise!…I had my best meet of the season. I wasn’t focused on scores. I was focused on my team.
I was performing with grace, with purpose, with grit, with passion, with confidence. I loved my school and my team and I competed like nothing could stop me.
I was so proud of my team, I was so proud of my change of mindset. I had never enjoyed a competition so much in my entire life, and I was looking forward to bringing that energy into postseason.
But it’s hard to do that when you’re told while boarding the bus after the meet that your grandfather passed away that morning.
My world literally turned upside down. Postseason was approaching, finals were looming, and I had to pause everything. Our first postseason meet was exactly one week away, and I think it goes without saying, but that week of practice wasn’t the best for me. Regardless, my team still believed in me and showed me unwavering support. I couldn’t let them down and felt a lot of pressure to do what was best for the team. I had to push through whatever I was feeling. I had to push through the pressure, the grief, and the stress. I opened up to my coach, and her response hit me hard –
“doing what’s best for your team is also being in touch with how you’re feeling right now.”
I wrote the excerpt at the beginning of this story the night my coach told me that because those words carry more weight the more you think about them. I had to write them down to serve as a reminder, and it made me think about the direction my mind was going after receiving the news.
When I say my world turned upside down, I mean that I had the urge to give up. News like that can make the world seem desolate, and it made me a little hopeless. I was so confused about how I spent this whole time reframing my mind just for something to happen outside of gymnastics that shot me back to square one. I knew I needed help to regain motivation, but I didn’t know how or where to get it from.
I still wanted to make an impact on my team, I still wanted to make history with my team, but I couldn’t find a way to pick myself up.
When postseason finally came, my warmup for the events wasn’t my best. Once again, I was in a place of doubt, stress, and anger. We were on beam warmup, and my coach walked up to me, gave me a hug, and said, “I love you.” Right before I saluted for my bar routine, my bars coach walked up to me and said, “I believe in you. I trust in you.” I finished the routine with a stuck dismount and couldn’t hear anything but my team screaming for me.
Landing that dismount and feeling those emotions was something I’d never experienced before. As I turned to face the judges, I started to tear up immediately. This was it. This is what I was missing. This team was more than my team. They were my family. I had never felt more supported and loved by a group of people. They never doubted me even when I had my own doubts. They trusted me even in my lowest points.
They got me through the toughest times of my life, and I don’t even think they knew it.
At the end of the school year, UNC holds the RAMMYs Award Ceremony. I ended up winning the “Best Individual Performance” award for female athletes at UNC. I will forever remember the irony of this moment: in the interview afterward, I giggled as I was asked my thoughts because I had no idea the same thought I had for countless nights before was going to be said out loud, filmed, and posted for the world to see. I responded, on camera, that the award's name was ironic because it wasn’t won individually. That’s just the truth.
The success of an individual doesn’t come from just that one person.
Without my team, I would not have risen above my unforeseen challenges – in my personal life, in gymnastics, and in my head. I had a newly-learned view of success since the season had ended, and I thought about it…a lot. I was so grateful to be on a team with such amazing women and staff.
Going into my sophomore year, I’m content knowing what is important to me. It isn’t awards. It’s being a part of something bigger. It’s about being a part of a family that is making a difference in the world of gymnastics and the community around us.
I’ll end my story with this – remember to surround yourself with people that will remind you of what’s important, support you, and love you. I had my team in North Carolina, but I also had family and friends from back home in Alabama and Louisiana supporting me. Knowing I had people supporting me from afar gave me a sort of confidence and assurance that was vital throughout my entire freshman year.
To all the people who never gave up on me: your support got me through hard times I could never overcome without you.
“It doesn’t matter what the grade is, I have people that love me and care for me. It doesn’t matter what the score is, I have a team that respects me and loves me as more than a gymnast, but as a person.”
~ April 4, 2022, a journal entry a week after the season ended
- Julia Knower