A second home: Gymnast earns scholarship after overcoming injuries

Leslie Parker, Staff Writer

At age 3 she walked into the gym, laid on her back and tried to push her legs into the splits against the floor. But she couldn’t do it. She was not flexible enough for the splits and, at first, her coach declared there was no way a girl like her could ever make it as a gymnast.

But when senior Caroline Smith was able to complete higher-level skills like pullover cartwheels that required strength, she won over her coaches’ confidence. As she developed and grew as a gymnast her coaches labeled her a “natural” and believed she would one day compete in the Olympics.

During the second semester of eighth grade, Smith was doing a front flip on the beam when she broke her elbow. A week later, she underwent surgery to receive two pins and 26 stitches in her shoulder and five pins in her wrist. Smith was forced to stop her regular training schedules, as she was not allowed to go back inside the gym until she was in a hard cast. Once in a hard cast, Smith was able to return to do conditioning and flexibility.

Although Smith said she was eager to return to the gym after her first injury, she said she was naturally a little scared to begin practicing again.

“I didn’t do that skill from the beam for a long time,” Smith said. “The first time I did it was actually two or three weeks ago because my coaches wanted me to try it again on a low beam for college. It was okay but it will never be in my routines.”

Smith went back to working in the gym on her regular schedule. Everything seemed fine until doctors discovered bone spurs hitting the nerve from the location of her first surgery. Smith had surgery to have the bone spurs shaved and to move the nerve to the other side of her arm.

Smith was injured every year from eighth grade to 11th and has had multiple surgeries – three on her right elbow, two on her right wrist and one for a torn meniscus. Up until these injuries occurred, Smith had grown up believing she would one day make history as an Olympian.

“My whole family was so determined,” Smith said. “I was really going towards it. I would have been in the 2012 London Olympics if I hadn’t broken everything. I was training for it and it was amazing. Just the fact that I could have made it fascinates me. I worked hard for it and I think that’s what kind of broke me. I worked so hard and so long that I guess my bones just kind of gave up.”

Smith might have lost her dream of making it to the Olympics, but she has not lost her dedication to gymnastics. Smith returned to the sport after every injury.

“I wouldn’t be able to just leave,” Smith said. “I love everything about gymnastics. I love the team, I love the coaches, and I love the parents cheering for us.”

By sticking with gymnastics, Smith earned a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Washington in Seattle.

“I picked the University of Washington because I stepped onto the campus and knew that was the place,” Smith said. “The feeling was amazing. I really can’t describe it. The coaches are a perfect fit. They remind me of my club coaches and I get along so well with the girls. It was like I was at home. They felt like my second family.”

Smith said competing and continuing the sport has earned her more than a scholarship and a second family. Gymnastics has shaped Smith as a person and made her who she is today.

“Doing gymnastics has made me very determined,” Smith said. “As gymnasts we know what we want. Having injuries has made me a stronger person. I think it proves that I can handle anything standing on my own, but it has also proved I have a lot of people who have my back. I’m never alone.”