Why didn’t you quit? On that last rep, when you injured yourself, when you were frustrated out of your mind. Why didn’t you stop right then? Because you’re an athlete. And the best athletes, the ones who truly love what they are doing, don’t give up when things get tough. They persevere, they work through their struggles, the use them to become better.
I started competitive gymnastics when I was eight years old. It’s a hard sport, one that requires mental toughness as well as incredible physical strength. But I was pretty good at it. I was soon practicing 25 hours a week and loving it. And all my hard work payed off when I won first place at my meets. It was incredible.
But around Thanksgiving of 2010 I became sick. I felt weak and had fevers and headaches all the time, and it didn’t go away. I remember trying not to cry at the thought of going to practice, at the thought of how much my head hurt, or how tired I was. But I couldn’t just skip practice, I had to go in and keep getting better, keep trying to get stronger. “I can do this”, I would tell myself. And so I’d take a deep breath and walk in to the gym, ready to give it my all. However, despite my efforts, I didn’t get any better, if anything, I got worse – I wasn’t as strong as I used to be, my endurance had gone way down, I wasn’t excelling anymore. By March, I was still sick, bruising all over and getting a bunch of staph infections. After trying multiple times to discover what was wrong with me, my doctor finally decided to do a blood test.
On May 20th of 2011 my parents received a call from the doctor. The results of the blood test were in. I had Leukemia, a type of blood cancer. So that night I packed my stuff and headed up to UW Madison Children’s Hospital. There they did additional testing and determined that I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). They then devised a treatment plan- I would receive three rounds of chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. I would live in the hospital, and I would not be allowed to do gymnastics. In fact, the most active thing I was allowed to do was toss a ball back and forth with a physical therapist.
But just like before, my mindset was “I can do this”. I just needed to get better so that I could get back to my life. The universe, however, had other plans. On my 7th day of treatment I felt an aching pain in my left leg and was rushed to the operating room for surgery. I woke up three days later, with a ventilator breathing for me and missing two of my four quadricep muscles in my left leg. I had necrotising fasciitis, a flesh eating bacteria that is incredibly deadly. The doctor just barely saved my life and my leg. I couldn’t walk, I had to wear a brace, and I had a scar that ran from below my knee all the way up to my hip. But even at this point I still believed I would go back to gymnastics.
The doctors said that with lots of physical therapy I would regain the function of my knee and that with hard work and effort my two remaining quadriceps would become strong enough to compensate for the two I had lost. So yeah, I had a few more obstacles in my way, but it was possible. I could do this.
During my second round of treatment I developed another life-threatening infection in my leg. This time an Aspergillus fungal infection that traveled from my leg to my lungs and landed me back in the operating room where they removed more of my muscles in order to keep the infection from spreading. Even after this second infection, however, I was still set on going back to gymnastics, although the doctors were less enthusiastic this time.
The doctors began covering the open wound with cadaver skin in the hopes of preventing another infection, and it worked. At least until the day before my bone marrow transplant. Deciding a third round of chemotherapy was too risky given my history, the doctors decided to go straight into a bone marrow transplant after my second round of treatment. I received the pre-transplant chemo which wiped out my entire immune system and had gone in to the OR for a cadaver skin change when they found yet another infection, this time in my knee joint. The doctors decided to amputate.
This was the first time I thought I wasn’t going back to gymnastics. I was devastated, this was what I had been holding on to through all the chemo, the infections, the hospital. But I couldn’t do gymnastics with one leg, it just wasn’t possible. However after talking with my coaches I was back on track. They were willing to try if I was and that was all I needed. We didn’t know if it was going to work, but I was sure going to try. First I had to get healthy again though. My bone marrow transplant was successful and I spent the next 6 months recovering from it.
I returned to gymnastics in April of 2012. I received a prosthetic leg in May, relearning how to walk and run again and finally getting back into the sport I loved. It wasn’t easy – I had to build all of my strength back up, I had to relearn all the basics, and this time I was doing it with only one leg. But I worked hard through all of it and was soon back on the the road to competing.
In September of that same year I went in for a routine check up. The doctor noticed my platelet count was very low and decided to do some additional testing. That is when my life came to a screeching halt once again. My cancer had returned. I had two more rounds of chemo, another bone marrow transplant, this time at St. Jude Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and took part in some trial drug studies. This time my treatment actually went quite smoothly, especially when compared to last time. I again had to wait about six months until I could return to the gym. But this time I knew I could do it – there was no doubt and no way I was giving up. I went back to gymnastics in July of 2013.
Again I relearned all my skills and built up my strength. But this time I learned new skills, I became better than I was even before my cancer.
I have now competed three seasons of gymnastics and am stronger than ever. I’m not winning first place anymore, but I am by far a better gymnast, and better athlete than before. Because of my struggles I have grown to appreciate my sport more, to work harder in it because I know what it feels like to have it taken away. Because of my struggles I have realized the importance of an athlete’s mentality. You must be mentally strong enough to take on obstacles, to think your way through a problem, to not give up. And then you can use those struggles to improve, to become a better athlete.
Although I might not have realized it in the beginning, that is why I didn’t quit. Because I knew my struggles would be worth it in the end. That they would make me better.
So when you are on that last rep, when you are waiting for an injury to heal, when you are frustrated because nothing is getting better, do not quit. Your struggles are what improve you. Work through them and you will be better for it.