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  • Darby Kent

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

“Your only option is surgery.”

“If you ever want to play again, you’ll need surgery.”

“Think about your future.”

“If you ever want to safely hold your child, you should get the surgery.”

If you told 6-year-old me that the sport I love would cause three surgeries, arthritis at the age of 21, and a laundry list of injuries, she’d be convinced it was a lie. I started gymnastics at the age of 6, and for as long as I can remember, I spent hours in the gym five to six days a week. Being a gymnast became my identity. People would ask me how I could sacrifice a “normal” life for gymnastics, and without hesitation my response was simply “I love it.”

My love for gymnastics faded during my first injury. It was a simple sprained ankle. No one prepared me for just how difficult it would be to sit and watch my teammates compete after all of the hours I poured into my sport. Another thing I was never prepared for were the emotions that came with it. I constantly felt left behind and that I was becoming less athletic. I worked my way back to “normal” and within a week, I found myself in the ER with a partially dislocated elbow. So I did it all over again: the rest, recovery, physical therapy and the mental torment of not being allowed to do your sport. Within a year of that injury, I found myself again at the doctor with a broken heel from falling off bars and a doctor telling me I needed surgery for my previous “simple” ankle sprain. The night before the surgery I remember not being able to sleep, worried that I would never be the same. After 6 months of recovery, I suffered from a concussion after hitting my head 3 times at one competition. At this point, it was the end of my junior year of high school, and I was working on getting recruited. Unsurprisingly, my ankle started bothering me again. The surgeon informed me that a screw from the previous surgery had become loose and is now wearing away a hole in my bone. Wonderful news, right?

Before the news, I had been in contact with the Cornell gymnastics coaches and had just been offered a spot on their team. To say I was head over heels is an understatement. I remember reaching out to Coach Mel about my surgery expecting her to be angry or disappointed, but instead she was so supportive and wanted what’s best for me as a person. From then on, I knew that I had committed to the right school. I went ahead with the surgery and was on crutches for 12 weeks. At least this time, it was a success!

Although the surgery was successful, I was going through mental turmoil. The joy I had for my sport had slowly dimmed, and I questioned whether or not it was worth it to go through sleepless nights filled with pain, countless doctors appointments, and the wear and tear on my body. I continued to push through and before I knew it I was on Cornell's campus training I was starting to find my love for the sport again. Just when I thought everything was over, I started having back pain. The MRI read it was Baastrup syndrome which the doctor translated as “old lady back.” More great news, right?

I ended up competing in most meets that year on bars, my favorite event, and was probably in the best mental state I've been in in a while. Unfortunately, Covid hit in the middle of that season, and we were sent home. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I became hyper fixated on my eating habits and overly obsessed with exercise to try to fill the gap of gymnastics. My days consisted of calorie counting, exercise, and sleeping. I fell into this miserable cycle of eating and exercising because I “had” to, not because I wanted to. This mindset carried with me into the semester and to make it worse, I chose to live alone, and my parents had just announced that they were getting a divorce. Things slowly got better with time as I was able to digest my family life and we were starting to practice normally.

Fast forward to junior year... we were a few meets into the season when my shoulder gave way and partially dislocated. It's done that eight to nine times before, but this one felt different. I couldn’t lift my arm up, and when I finally did, it gave out and dropped whatever I was holding. I got an MRI that showed I had an absent labrum in the front of my shoulder, a torn labrum in the back, arthritis, and a torn rotator cuff. This was the most mentally straining injury I’ve ever had.

Earlier that year, I was elected to be a team captain, and I decided to take on becoming SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) president. I felt that I had to put on this strong face and pretend that my (almost) career ending injury, parent’s divorce, and pressure of being SAAC president and a captain wasn’t getting to me. There were so many athletes relying on me and I thought that there was no time to take care of myself. I was having so much trouble processing my anger after having another competition season taken away from me.

My roommate and teammate, Amy Krueger, is my rock. She gave me all the love and support I could ever have asked for even when I wasn’t the easiest to live with. She helped me understand that I didn’t have to put on a “face” and say that “I was doing okay.” She offered to take some of my responsibilities, and she offered distractions, which were both so helpful.

From this experience, I can now say that “it’s okay to not be okay,” as cliché as that sounds. I was trying to be the best captain and teammate for my team when in reality that wasn’t possible unless I took care of myself. I made sure to give myself time to be upset, to delegate my responsibilities, and to take a step back.

I took the summer to find hobbies that brought me joy that weren’t gymnastics like hiking. I looked at gymnastics as a gift. When we got back to campus in the fall and I was able to practice again (slowly because I was still coming back from my shoulder injury), I came in each day just grateful that I could still be there. I removed the pressure of competition, and I just decided to train because I wanted to… and because it was fun.

Before I knew it, I had a bar routine back, and the chances of competition were closer than I ever could’ve imagined. This never would’ve happened if I didn’t start competing for the right reasons. Going back to my 6 year old self, I play gymnastics simply because “I love it.”


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2 comentarios

09 may 2023

Your journey, shared with so much transparency, inspires me. Thank you for sharing.

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06 may 2023

I sometimes wondered what it's really like to be a college gymnast. (As someone who did gymnastics as a kid but quit in middle school.) Thank you for sharing your story Darby, and for reminding all of us that it is possible to bounce back from the most debilitating things life throws at you. I'm glad you're doing better now and found your love for the sport again <3

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