Last Friday was a bittersweet moment as I watched my daughter Ana compete in her last high school gymnastics sectional meet. It is so hard to believe she is a senior in high school and the days of watching her compete vault, floor, beam, and her favorite, the bars, will soon come to an end. Gymnastics has been a major part of our lives for so long. The first time Ana did gymnastics was when she was 4 years old and enrolled in a community education class at Williamsville North High School. I still remember that day so vividly. It was around Halloween and one of the coaches wore a Scooby Do costume. Ana wore pig tails and a purple leotard. When they had their program, she was clearly more agile and strong than the other girls. You could tell already she would be a natural. At the end of class, the coach told me I should enroll Ana at a regular gym because they saw her potential as well. During the summer before Kindergarten, I checked out a few gyms with Ana to see where we would enroll her. I saw nice things about each of the gyms, but when Ana saw a group of high level gymnasts working out at Stumpfs, she was sold. “I want to come here,” she announced.
Ana has always known what she wanted and worked hard to get it. During her Kindergarten year, she began at Stumpfs as a beginner and after one month was moved up to advanced beginner and then the highest level for her age, pre-comp, with Coach Eric Stumpf. I enjoyed watching Ana’s practices. Already she was going 3 times a week and learning back handsprings and a flyaway, or single back tuck dismount from the bars. Coach Eric seemed to really like Ana and even gave her a practice balance beam. By the time Ana was in second grade, she started competing at meets as a level 5 gymnast.
Ana’s passion for gymnastics grew in Miami. She was one of the stars at her first gym in Miami, Flairs. At her first competition, the Orange Bowl in Ft. Lauderdale, Ana swept first place. She would continue to place in the top 3 all year. Ana would go to practice 5 days a week. She loved it there and would be upset if she had to miss a day. I loved watching Ana compete. She was always so graceful and confident under pressure. She never appeared to be nervous and always looked like she was enjoying herself. She prided herself on learning new skills and I would share in her excitement of achieving them.
When Ana was in 6th grade, Flairs was bought out so we moved to another gym called Universal. Universal is the home of Olympic medalist Dannell Leyva. Ana was coached by Dannell’s mom Maria. There was a more serious atmosphere there. While Ana was learning more difficult skills, she also started an injury that would eventually change the trajectory of her gymnastics aspirations.
While at a meet in Tampa, Ana was warming up her back handspring when she felt a pop in her elbow. She was unable to move it after that. After several doctor’s visits and MRIs, it was determined that Ana had osteochodritis dissecans, a wearing away and separation of cartilage and bone in her elbow due to the constant pounding and weight-bearing on that joint. Ana had several bone fragments floating in the joint space which needed to be removed. Much of the literature suggested that the condition could not be cured and discouraged continuing in the sport. Ana was heartbroken and it was hard on me to see her so upset. We took Ana to one of the best orthopedic sports physicians in town. He treated the Miami Dolphins. Unlike the previous doctor, this one said Ana could resume gymnastics after surgery and 6 months of physical therapy. During surgery, the doctor removed 3 fragments from her elbow the size of kernels of corn. He also poked holes in her cartilage to stimulate new bone growth.
When we moved back to Buffalo, Ana started back at Stumpfs after having been out for 6 months. I remember her first day back. All the girls saw her and shouted her name and came running up to her to give her a big hug. It was a great homecoming for Ana. Stumpfs would prove to be her second family- not just because of the time spent there, but because her coaches and teammates really loved one another and took care of each other. Ana began her high school gymnastics career as an 8th grader competing for Williamsville South under coach Kurt Stumpf. From 9th to 12th grade she would compete for East.
One thing I admire so much about Ana is her determined spirit. Many kids would have given up, but my daughter always pulled through. Her elbow was not the only thing she overcame. She overcame a broken ankle, a tooth knocked out, and all sorts of aches and pains. Besides that, the mothers of the other gymnasts always talked to me about how they love my daughter because she is so kind and helpful to their daughters. “She is such a good role model,” they’d say.
This past Friday’s sectional meet was like a celebration of Ana’s gymnastics career and a send-off to a new beginning. Ana competed a solid meet, scoring over 9 on all events. Her last event was her favorite, the bars. A lot of people knew it was her last time competing locally and the cheer, “Go Ana” could be heard from all around the gym. Ana’s routine was electrifying the way she twirled and swung around the bar swiftly with ease and punctuated the routine with a high double back dismount. The crowd cheered wildly with appreciation and Ana showed raw emotion on her face.
The sectional meet has always been a special meet for the way they honor the gymnasts not just by their scores, but as teammates and leaders. The first presentation was for the winners of the Colleen Fatta Memorial Scholarship, in honor of a gymnastics coach who died young from cancer. Ana was chosen as one of the two recipients. As the woman read portions of Ana’s essay about her plans for college, I was overcome with emotion. Ana wrote about how Philip had affected her life. Her new goal was to study neuroscience and engineering to understand autism and develop technology to help people communicate better. She equated success not by the number of medals on her wall, but by the number of ways she could make a positive difference in people’s lives. That’s my girl. I was so proud at that moment.
As the night continued, Ana won the Spirit award and the Tink Award for leadership. At last it was time for the medals. Ana came in 6th place on vault and floor, 5th in beam, 2nd in bars, and 3rd in All-Around. She would represent Section 6 in the state meet for the fifth time.
There have been times I have lamented the short life span of gymnastics and its toughness on the body. But if you ask Ana if she would change anything, her answer is a resounding “no.” I believe Ana has learned a lot of life lessons through the sport and has had her character tested and refined through it. I truly believe the hard work, determination, teamwork, and perseverance she developed through gymnastics will carry through in college, her future aspirations, and her family.
Ana at Presidential Meet in Ft. Lauderdale 2005
Competing for Williamsville East Flames
Representing the Western Region for the Empire State Games 2010
Supporting her sister Lia
Taking 3rd Place All Around at Section 6 Meet Nov. 1, 2013
Ana- the sky's the limit for you!