Gymnast looking for better end to Olympic journey

Feb. 24, 2012, 4:14 p.m. (ET)

David Sender thought he'd moved on, put the heartbreak of the fluke injury that cost him a chance at the Beijing Olympics behind him.

As he watched the U.S. gymnastics championships last summer, though, Sender realized some dreams aren't so easy to let go.

“If there is any chance at all of me being able to make the Olympics, even if it's a tiny one, I owed it to myself to try,” he said. “Obviously in `08, that was the goal, and things didn't quite go the way I hoped. I didn't really get the chance to even prove if I should be on that team. I guess I kind of felt like things were a little unfinished.

“This time around, I'd really like to leave it all out on floor and be able to look back and say, `I absolutely gave it everything I have.”'

Sender has taken a leave from veterinary school at the University of Illinois, putting his life on hold for one last shot at the Olympics. Despite training for only about five months, he showed at Winter Cup that he still can be a factor. Sender was sixth at the ranking meet earlier this month, earning a spot back on the national team.

He tied for second on vault and posted the third-highest score on still rings.

“I don't think I could ever tell you his actual potential for making the '08 team. The fact he didn't get chance to try, as an athlete, that would have been absolutely devastating. And it actually was,” said Justin Spring, a member of the U.S. team that won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics and now the coach at Illinois.

After winning the U.S. title in 2008, Sender headed to the Olympic trials confident he would win a spot on the Beijing team. He was the national champ on vault and one of the country's best on still rings.

But in training the day before trials began, Sender jumped up to steady a high bar still reverberating from what had been a harmless fall. It was something he'd done, oh, a million or two times in his gymnastics career, as automatic a response as flipping off a light switch when you leave a room.

This time, though, he landed with only half of his right foot on the thick mat. His right ankle rolled, tearing two ligaments.

Sender petitioned for a spot on the Beijing team, but Athens Olympics champion Paul Hamm was hurt, too. Putting one injured gymnast on a six-man Olympic team was a big enough risk, no way the selection committee would take two.

When the team was announced, Hamm was on it, and Sender was not. Nor was Sender named one of the three alternates, two of whom wound up competing in Beijing after both Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, were forced out with injuries.

“The feeling, I'm not even sure I could describe in words how I felt during that entire period,” Sender said. “I was primed and ready for what was supposed to be the pinnacle of my career. To literally have that wiped away by a fluke accident, it's really hard to describe how much of a letdown that is. There was a lot of disappointment, a lot of frustration.

“It's definitely one of the toughest, if not the toughest, things I've gone through.”

Sender competed the following year, earning a spot on the 2009 world championships team. But he gave up the spot, deciding it was time to get on with the rest of his life.

The Stanford graduate has always wanted to be a veterinarian - he has a 12-year-old goldfish that has made the trip to California and back - and was accepted at Illinois on his first try, no easy feat at a school that takes only 120 students each year. He began the four-year program in the fall of 2009 and volunteered at the school's Wildlife Medical Clinic and the local Humane Society.

“In my mind, I honestly was done,” Sender said.

But when he needed a break from school, he'd head to the gym. A highly driven person who can't do anything unless it's at full speed, Sender said he was only “playing around” as he pushed himself to do tough tricks and learn new skills.

Spring, however, thought there might be more to it.

“He'd still swing pommel horse and do legit, big vaults,” Spring said. “I said, `David, people just playing around don't do that. You're coming back.' And he was like, `I'm not.”'

Sender returned to the national championships in St. Paul, Minn., last August as a member of the men's selection committee, fully expecting the skills to be beyond his reach.

The more he watched, though, the more he felt he could still compete. Still, it took several weeks for him to decide to come back.

“I wasn't scared to go back into gymnastics, because I knew that world,” Sender said. “But to make the decision to put life on hold for a year, I'm risking a lot to do that. It's not going to be that easy to come back to school, not because I don't want to but because I've been out of it a year. And I'm putting my hopes on the line again, and it could end in disappointment. I definitely know this was the harder choice, the harder path to take.”

Making the U.S. team will be even tougher than it was four years ago. Squads have been cut from six gymnasts to five, and the Americans are deeper than they've been in years. U.S. champ Danell Leyva won gold on parallel bars at last fall's world championships, the first American to win a world title since 2003. Jonathan Horton is a two-time Olympic medalist. John Orozco missed an all-around medal at worlds by less than .60 points.

Oh, Paul Hamm is back, too.

“The goal is to make the Olympic team, and if that doesn't happen, I'll be upset,” Sender said. “But if nothing else, I'll be able to leave everything out there and have no regrets from this, and be able to feel ... finished is the best word. I'll really be able to wholeheartedly move on.

“Even if I don't end up making the team, I can say I gave it my all and gave everything to do this, and it wasn't in the cards. And I can move on.”


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