Kendra Stephenson now feels like herself again after three years away from the sport that has formed part of her identity. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
For gymnast Kendra Stephenson this season has particular significance. While other gymnasts are hungry for a return trip to the NCAA National Championships, Stephenson is just glad to be competing. This is the first time in three years that she has felt like herself.
Stephenson's introduction to gymnastics actually came after starting with ballet.
"I wasn't enjoying it though. I wanted to run and bounce around," Stephenson says. I quit ballet and had a neighbor who did gymnastics. She was doing cartwheels outside one day. I went and told my mom that I wanted to do gymnastics."
After a year her mother consented and Stephenson began. Unfortunately, injuries seemed to follow her. At age 14 she suffered a bad fall on bars and fractured her back putting her behind in her development and testing her both mentally and physically.
She did eventually come back and went on to win the Kansas Level 9 state championship.
"I was feeling really good about qualifying for regionals," she said. "I felt like I could qualify for nationals and then I hurt myself on the last practice and last event before regionals. After that I needed a break."
Stephenson did high school gymnastics her junior and senior years before deciding to go back to club. She just didn't have the strength and energy to do it anymore though.
"I couldn't put myself back in that situation. I was hurting and feeling a negative atmosphere. I think I quit because of burn out," she said. I wasn't really ready to quit, but I went home after a bad day and said 'I can't do this anymore.'"
After graduation, she came out to BYU with no plans of trying to get back into the sport.
"I didn't really know if I was good enough to do gymnastics in college, so I never tried."
With such an abrupt end to her club career, a spark of desire remained.
"It was on my mind the whole time my freshman and sophomore year. I thought about it but pushed it out of my mind because I thought that's impossible, that's crazy," she said. "I was hoping to find something else I enjoyed, trying to be more dedicated to something else, but I just couldn't ignore it."
"I came out to the gymnastics meets and realized just how much I missed it and how I felt like I was still capable of working out, training and competing," Stephenson said.
Finally she decided to check into the possibility of coming back.
"My junior year I talked to (assistant coach) Dawn (Cattermole) and told her I was interested in trying out (for the team) and seeing if there was any possibility and what kind of things I would need to do."
Still she wondered about coming back and trying to take on something so big. She sought advice from her parents and friends who encouraged her to do it.
"It took me a while to decide," she said. I was really nervous because it was a big commitment and I wasn't sure if I could handle it if I tried so hard and then failed."
She finally decided she wanted to do it.
"If I wanted to do it and be successful I felt like I needed to train back at my club I had worked out at my entire life. The coaches knew me. They knew what kind of athlete I am andhow to get me going. They knew my skills," she said.
She rearranged her life and moved out to Kansas to train for the summer. Once she got back in training, Stephenson soon remembered how rigorous it could be.
"Gymnastics is really hard sport to take time off and come back. If you've been gone a week from practice, you feel like you've been gone a couple months," she said. "After all that time I didn't have confidence in my body being able to know what it was supposed to do. I wasn't as mentally tough as I used to be either," she said. "As hard as it was though, I was still surprised at how easily things came back to me after that much time off."
Trying to walk on to a Top 20-ranked gymnastics program, Stephenson was very nervous. How would the other girls accept her? Would the coaches be supportive and helpful? Would she be able to make it? These concerns were quickly erased.
"I was surprised how much both the coaches and girls accepted me as part of the team," she said. "I felt like I didn't do much to earn it. As soon as I got here though, they included me. They respected me as a gymnast. That meant a lot to me that they would do that and take so much time to help me improve."
Now that Stephenson has worked her way back to feeling like herself, she hopes to be able to make the line-up in an event and be a consistent contributor for the Cougars. In the mean time, though, she can enjoy a feeling of accomplishment in coming back to the sport that has formed part of her identity. She can feel like herself again.
Update: Shortly after this was written Stephenson was able to exhibition for the Cougars on floor at Southern Utah on February 10. However injuries caught her again, as she hurt her knee part way through her routine. It is undetermined how long she will be out.