Lisa Willis looks to lead BYU after a redshirt 2005 season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Standout gymnast Lisa Willis quit gymnastics before she ever got started.
"My best friend was doing it when I was seven and she said 'Do you want to come along?' and I said yeah," esplains Willis, a 5-foot seven junior from Albuquerque. "She actually quit and so I quit."
But after seeing a gymnastics meet a year later, she confessed to her mom that she loved being a gymnast and really wanted to start training again. Twelve years later, Willis is now a scholar athlete and one of many leaders on the team.
Willis has career highs of 9.850 on bars and beam and 9.950 on floor, which is tied for the third best score at BYU. She is majoring in fitness and wellness with a minor in nutrition, but she says her passion lies in magazine writing.
"I am going to go for my master's in communications after so I'll be here for a long time," says Willis. "I've kind of had an epiphany because my whole life has been gymnastics. I just thought about what I would want to do if I had to have a career. What else do I love?"
This past season gave Willis plenty of time to think about her future. Last summer she started feeling more tired than usual after workouts. But Willis does not have the type of personality to stop working just because she's tired.
"I am just the personality type to push it, get the job done. It doesn't matter what you feel like, just do it and it takes its toll," offers Willis. "There are limits that your body has that you can't work through."
Willis stopped weightlifting and conditioning and gained weight in order gain some energy, but nothing helped. She underwent blood tests for everything from tuberculosis to AIDS.
She would lose focus at the gym. She told team trainer Gaye Merrill she thought she was out of shape. Merrill looked her over and didn't think she was. Willis tapered off in her training, but the more she did, the worse she felt.
The problem appeared to be only overtraining; her body was tired and needed extensive rest. She rested over the Christmas break and began the season at the team's first meet in Cancun.
"The first two weeks after Cancun I felt really great," explains Willis. "And then one week later after trying to do floor, something happened and I couldn't even finish the meet."
Willis competed in only the first two meets of season before deciding to redshirt her junior season. She considers it a miracle that she could no longer physically compete after the second meet because it was the deadline for redshirting.
"Maybe I could have finished out the season, just done bars for the team," reasons Willis. "And maybe that would have helped them, but you know what, its not worth it."
Even though she was not allowed any exercise, Willis still went to the four-hour practices everyday and attended all meets. The only physical activity she was allowed was a one-hour walk everyday. For a gymnast accustomed to four-hour workouts, Willis began to look forward to her workouts.
Willis got started later in gymnastics than most college gymnasts. Even though she was a state champion she claims she wasn't very good before coming to BYU.
"I just like to make it clear how bad I was," says Willis. "I got a 3.0 when I was about 8 in a competition on bars." It is common for an eight-year-old to score an 8.0. That didn't stop her from becoming a three-time New Mexico state champion, regional vault champion and all-around runner-up. She also competed twice at the Junior Olympic Nationals.
During her junior year of high school, Willis began looking at colleges and wanted to go somewhere fun and warm. One of her choices was Cal-Santa Barbara because of the beaches. BYU was not one of her choices because she wanted to do something different from the typical LDS member who attends BYU. However, her decision was ultimately made when BYU assistant coach Dawn Cattermole came to New Mexico.
"Dawn came to visit and mentioned that BYU was the only school who didn't do anything on Sundays like compete or practice and that was something I'd been trying to do my entire career," explains Willis. "That pretty much sold me, and the program was good. After that my attitude switched and I was praying that I could come here."
She got her wish and is now part of a team that finished No. 11 in the nation last year. Being a full-time athlete on a nationally ranked team has its drawback, though.
During the season her days are pretty much the same. She wakes up, goes to class, goes to practice, does homework and then goes to sleep; not to mention having a meet almost every weekend. That doesn't leave much time for socializing.
"They say there are three things your have in college; you have your school, your athletic life, and your social life, and they always say you got to pick two out of three; unfortunately, I've picked the first two."
Though she doesn't get out as often as she would like, she knows it is worth it. After a year away from the competition, Willis is ready to get back in action. And also back into some of her nuances. For example, before every meet she eats almonds. It all started as a senior in high school when she was having trouble with energy. Her mom, who Willis says is the funniest eater, suggested eating almonds.
"At Regional my senior year I was running low on energy so I was eating almonds, eating almonds and then I won, and I was like 'It's the almonds!,'" says Willis.
The almonds aside, there are definitely plenty more reasons for Willis' great ability, skill and leadership.