|Bridget Sloan competes on balance beam in a meet against
Alabama on Feb. 8, 2013.
On June 29, 2012, as Bridget Sloan tearfully explained that an elbow injury had ended her elite gymnastics career just minutes before she was set to compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, there was one thing keeping her going.
“I’ll make it,” the 2008 Olympian and 2009 world all-around champion said, fighting through emotions. “I’ll head down to Florida, and I’ll have a great time, and I will win NCAAs … I’m really excited about it.”
Nearly 10 months later, everything has pretty much gone according to plan.
And it’s not just that Sloan, now a 20-year-old college freshman, leads her top-ranked Florida Gators into this weekend’s NCAA Championships with the nation’s second-best all-around score, top uneven bars score and second-best balance beam score.
Rather, it’s that life as a student-athlete in sunny Gainesville has brought a fresh new start for a gymnast who began the sport at age 4 and didn’t stop pushing to be the world’s best until that moment just before the Olympic Trials when she felt a pain in her left elbow during warm-ups.
“I can’t really explain it in words just how incredible my time here at Florida has been,” Sloan said on Tuesday before hopping on the bus to the airport. “I can really enjoy gymnastics again. Not saying that I didn’t enjoy gymnastics as an elite because I did, but sometimes it got a little bit intense — or a lot intense during competition — and it kind of takes the fun out of it.”
Following through with a plan she made back around 2010, to compete for a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team as an amateur and then go on to college, Sloan arrived at Florida last fall with her goal “to have as much fun as possible.”
So she’s traded in her bed at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas for a dorm room on campus. She gets around the “ginormous” school on a moped. And on opening weekend, the gymnast who was watched by millions as she helped Team USA earn a silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games was just like any other freshman, standing dumbfounded on a street corner with her face buried in a campus map.
“You could tell I was a freshman,” she said.
All of Sloan’s five Olympic teammates went slightly different directions after the Beijing Games. Sloan’s good friend and fellow Indiana native Samantha Peszek went on to compete for UCLA. In 2011, she helped the Bruins finish as national runner-ups and Peszek took the NCAA title in the balance beam. She tore her Achilles’ tendon during a practice and is not competing at the NCAAs this week.
|Bridget Sloan competes on floor in a meet against Missouri on
Jan. 18, 2013.
Meanwhile Sloan, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone tried and fell short of making the 2012 Olympic Team. Yet of the six only Sloan stuck with the sport continuously after Beijing (albeit with some breaks due to injuries).
So the elbow injury at the Olympic Trials was a heartbreaking end to her elite career.
Sloan credits her mom, Mary, for forcing her to get out of her home in Pittsboro, Ind., and work at gymnastics camps during the weeks after the Olympic Trials.
“I can’t thank her enough for pushing me to do that because it pushed me out of that funk,” she said.
And a few weeks after that, Sloan was packing a U-Haul truck and driving 12 hours to her new home.
By the time she arrived, her elbow injury — which she identifies unofficially as a sprain on the nerve — was fully healed. The next step then was adapting to her new life as a collegiate gymnast. Whereas Sloan spent most of her life honing her individual career for a handful of meets each year, she now competes with a team of 15 gymnasts who have had a dozen meets since Jan. 4.
First seeing the schedule was bit daunting, Sloan admitted, but so far the season could hardly have gone better. Even her body feels as fresh as ever, she said, after she eased into competing all-around.
“Being here and being on the team, that’s all I wanted to do,” said Sloan, who is majoring in sports broadcasting and advertising. “No matter what the results were I knew that I was meant to be here. We have an incredible team: the chemistry, the depth, everything is absolutely awesome. And to be a part of that definitely feels good.”
When Sloan looks back on her elite career, she is proud of what she accomplished. Yet, knowing that an end was inevitable, she is also happy with where she is going. It’s a path, she said, that she hopes more elite gymnasts will consider following too.
“People always say how college isn’t for everybody,” she said, “but I really hope other elites can look at my experience and look at Sam’s experience and see how much fun we are having and how much we are enjoying gymnastics.”