In the fall of 1989, I began my sixth year of competitive gymnastics. After qualifying for nationals the previous year, I was excited to try to better my performance over the new season. Some of my teammates were in my same grade in school, but the date of my birthday left me in the 13–15 age group for one year longer before advancing. While my teammates advanced to the 16–18 class I level, it suited me to compete again as a class II for one more year. I would be one of the older and more experienced in my age group and class, and I hoped that this would give me a better chance to do well at nationals. Optional routines would be the same either way.
In January 1990, I was sick with the flu for the week leading up to our first two optional meets of the year. As a result, I did not have an opportunity to finalize the development of my routines. As we approached the weekend, we decided that my health had improved enough for me to try competing—one competition on Saturday and one on Sunday. My coach and I adjusted my routines so that I could comfortably execute, and I did my best. Sunday night, I finished the weekend with two first-place all-around awards. That weekend took its toll on my body. Feeling not at all well on Tuesday evening at the gym, I didn’t do much but sit and watch. After practice, I went home and went to bed. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital three days later. On Wednesday morning, my family was unable to wake me up. They took me, in a comatose state, to the doctor, who sent them immediately to the emergency room. I had contracted a viral form of encephalitis. The doctors were uncertain at first if the infection was viral or bacterial, nor could they give my parents any assurance that I would ever revive. They prescribed a broad range of antibiotics, but they warned my parents that should I awake, I might have brain damage, be blind, or be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
Three days later, I woke up. Aside from being in the hospital in a weakened state, I don’t recall feeling any significant effects from the illness. Within a couple of weeks, following therapy and doctor visits, I returned to school and the gym and resumed my endeavor toward a return trip to nationals. God had brought my family through a scary ordeal, but He is good, and things were moving in a positive direction once again. As the season progressed, I continued to balance gymnastics, school, church, and family life. I continued to do well in school. I turned sixteen during that year, got my driver’s permit, and began to learn to drive. As I had done every year since beginning gymnastics, I qualified for the state and regional competitions. Regional championships that year were at William and Mary College. At that competition, I performed my most complete set of routines from the entire season. The one big exception was my optional pommel horse routine, which was awful, but not entirely unexpected. Rings and pommel horse were my two weakest events, with pommel horse a clear worst. Although I spent a lot of time practicing those routines, I think I lacked the upper body strength necessary to excel in those disciplines. Still, my skill level was increasing and my execution more consistent as we got closer to a return trip to nationals. At regionals, I finished seventh in the all-around competition, qualifying me to the position of alternate on the region 7 team for the national championships.
Over the years that I had competed, our travels to different parts of the region gave us the added opportunity for sightseeing at various tourist attractions. The prior year, regionals took place in upstate New York. While there, we took the time to cross into Canada and visit Niagara Falls. This year, in Williamsburg, Virginia, we spent time touring Colonial Williamsburg. We also spent a day at Busch Gardens that week. We enjoyed the amusement park, which seemed practically empty with school still in session. I think my brother and I each rode the Loch Ness Monster and Big Bad Wolf roller coasters about twenty times each, just running round and round to keep getting on again and again.
After school had ended for the year, I got my first job over the summer. I worked as a dishwasher at Plain & Fancy, a local Lancaster County restaurant. It was hard work, but it gave me the opportunity to earn some money and get driving practice to and from work.
The weekend of nationals was quickly approaching. I don’t remember if I felt prepared, but I know that a lot of hard work went into getting my routines ready for competition. That year, nationals was in Baltimore, Maryland, not more than a couple of hours drive from our home. Being that close meant my family would be in the stands watching and cheering for me. We were also planning a trip to the beach and were all packed and ready to leave from Baltimore immediately following the competition.
The championship began with an introduction of all the gymnasts and judges. When the announcer called my name, I walked out onto the floor, excited about the experience and proud to be wearing the region 7 team uniform, even though only as an alternate. Regardless of the eventual outcome at nationals, I was proud of myself and of what I had accomplished thus far that year.
During the competition, nothing about my routines was highly memorable, with one exception. My best event was always the horizontal bar. I enjoyed just swinging around and around the bar and letting my body fly. I had high expectations for myself on this event and was hoping to finish in the top ten. I performed my compulsory routine well on the first day of the championships. I was hopeful that a good performance in the optional session would move me into the top ten to compete in the high bar finals the next day.
My routine began well. I let go and successfully regrabbed the bar for my release skill. Nearly complete with only the dismount remaining, I swung around the bar twice and let go. As I let go, I heard the bar twang, the vibration indicating that I let go too early. Instead of rising to get the needed height to complete my full-twisting double-back dismount, I flew out and away and barely had enough height and time to complete the rotation. My feet hit the ground, my hands hit the ground, and I rolled out. That was it. I would most likely not qualify for finals. I settled for fifteenth place but was happy to have done that well. Looking back, I know that fifteenth in the nation in anything is something to be proud of, but at the time, it was hard not to think that I could have done better. I left that competition telling myself, my coach, my dad, and anyone else, “There’s always next year.” I would be a class I the following year, and competition would be more difficult, but I was looking forward to the challenge. And so we left for a couple of weeks at the beach and some time away to relax before going back to the gym to prepare for the next year.