I never thought I would actually be telling my story like this. Sometimes you wonder if a decision you made in the past was the right one. In the moment, that is what you want to do and there’s nothing that would change your mind. Sometimes I wish there was a way to go back and change my perspective on the situation. Maybe someone would have guided me better or made me look at the bigger picture and the way I would feel now.
About five years ago, I made a decision of my own. I was twelve years old with only optimistic thoughts on my mind. At such a young age, I hadn’t encountered any decisions bigger than what kind of ice cream I wanted to get. I lived in a great neighborhood with the best family I could ask for. My two older brothers are my best friends and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. As anyone would, I looked up to them and followed their lead in any situation. As for my parents, where do I even begin? My parents, no doubt, come second to none. Sometimes I can tell they wish they could do more for us, but what more could they do? They raised us in the nicest town, gave us so many opportunities and made us the best we could be. They may not know it sometimes, but they really are the best and I am so thankful for everything they have provided me and my brothers. No matter what we were interested in, they supported us and put us in a place to try for what we wanted. They taught us that nothing will happen without hard work. If we want something bad enough, hard work and dedication will bring us results.
My whole life has always been about finding my passion. Finding something I could go to that would make everything else seem irrelevant. When I was younger, I found my passion and have stuck to it ever since.
Tumbling was my way out. I was barely out of diapers and I was already flipping around my house. Who knew, at that time, how big of an impact it would have on my life.
Finding the talent I had at such a young age made anything else incomparable. Ever since my first tumbling class, I had always been that small, rebellious child that was ready to try anything and everything. Flipping upside down did not make me scared like it had for everyone else. I had always been the one to surpass my peers in tumbling. With that though, I always stayed humble, I never left anyone behind, even if I was ready to move forward.
Because of my skills, I loved helping others succeed like I had. I wanted them to experience it the same way I had. I wanted them to love it as much as I did. I could never bare to think of a life without being upside down half the time. People compared me to a small energetic monkey, and I wouldn’t even deny it.
Fast forward a few years and the passion was still there. My best friend, Jessie, might have been the only person who loved gymnastics as much as me. We lived in a beautiful neighborhood that offered us endless opportunities for different sports and hobbies. No matter what we tried, there was nothing that could even compare to gymnastics. We hopped from gym to gym, coach to coach. We went from small gyms to big gyms, deranged coaches to sane coaches. We were so young, but nothing changed our love for that sport.
Fast forward again, we were in eighth grade, on our way to 9 A.M. practice. At this time, we had found a gym that suited us best, American Academy of Gymnastics in Wheeling, Illinois. Oblivious to the fact that this practice would be one to remember, we were just two young girls excited to see what we were about to achieve. After we had stretched, it was time for fun. Our coach, Leonard, instructed us to go warm up. He said, “We are going to start on floor today. Warm up fulls on the tumble track before coming to the floor.” So we did just that.
Only 30 minutes into practice, my mom not even out the door yet, the unpredictable happened.
“Throw your standing full Ang,” my whole team was cheering. So, of course, with all the encouragement, I threw it. I was half way around and upside down when I hit my head on the steel beam next to the mat. Because the gym was a warehouse, the steel beam was huge. Blood running down my face, all my teammates hovering over me, I was frozen, and then I was gone.
I wish I could tell you what I was seeing and what was happening in that moment. I blacked out and woke up in my coach's office with a bloody towel on my forehead. I fell asleep again and woke up in the hospital with my mom and a bump the size of a golf ball on my head. I looked at my mom and she asked me, “How are you feeling? Everything is going to be okay.”
Like anyone else, I had come to learn my mom was always right. So I sat there, in that hospital bed, and in that moment, everything was fine.
The results of this was not only a concussion, but also unwrapped a whole new circumstance for me. Because I was not able to do any exercising, my muscles were all atrophying. I was doing no activity, so why was I having so much pain in my body? After endless doctor and physical therapy appointments, we finally had the answer.
It was just another normal day when me and my mom were on our way to, yet another, physical therapy appointment. We walked through the doors of Lutheran General Hospital, a place I would soon become almost too familiar with, where I was at least 2 times a week, sometimes more. My therapist, at this time, was Pat. She proceeded with numerous different tests, moving my arms up and down, side to side. “Stand on one leg,” she would say.
“Now, hold your arm up.”
“Does your thumb go back this way?”
Motion after motion, test after test, question after question, I felt as though I was in an interrogation room for my bones. She had that look in her eyes, and at that moment I knew she had suspected something. Then, there it was, the answer to all our questions, the answer that would make or break me. The answer that would literally and figuratively break my bones.
“I’m pretty certain you have what is called EDS,” she told us, “Ehlers- Danlos Syndrome, also known as EDS, affects connective tissue, mostly joints and blood vessel walls.” I looked at my mom, we were speechless. I could tell she had so many questions about the information just thrown at us, as did I.
“So what does this mean?” My mother asked.
“With EDS it is common for joints to over extend and dislocate, so we are going to work on strengthening all the small, integrate muscles around your joints, not just the major ones,” Pat explained.
My therapist proceeded to explain how this will affect me. I will always be more at risk of injuries than everyone else. My joints will not only be weak, but also more prone to dislocations. If I do not keep my muscles strong, pain will occur almost instantaneously. Listening to the endless affects EDS would bring me, for the rest of my life, was so overwhelming. I was just a young girl trying to do what she loved and within minutes my life was turned around. In that moment, I did not know how big of a deal this really was. This was the start to the end of my passion. So many thoughts were running through my mind. After seeing a sports medicine doctor, the diagnosis was official, there was nothing that could change it now. It was time to decide what comes next for me. Because of the muscle decay in my body, going back to gymnastics was not realistic. Going back would only result in more and more injuries.
Pat was the first, of many to come, that would tell me to stop tumbling all together. How can someone tell me to just stop doing what I love? It was all I knew, it was all I wanted to do, the only thing that made me, me. Tumbling is not just some sport to me. It’s my world, my answer to everything, my way out. Tumbling makes me feel a way nothing else ever will. Tumbling was my passion, what I was good at, my specialty that no one could take away. I was not about to let some doctor tell me I am not physically able to continue my pursuit. No one would ever truly understand the way I felt. It may sound crazy, but flying through the air, flipping upside down, overall defying the laws of gravity, made any fear or worry I had go away. Ironic, isn’t it? How something so scary, so nerve racking, could make all my anxieties disappear. Everyone has that one thing, the one thing they do that they couldn’t imagine living without. For me, it’s tumbling, flipping upside down, five feet off the ground, it’s like free therapy appointments doing what I love.
I was starting to go crazy. I was not able to do what meant the most to me. Tumbling was my destresser. It cleared my mind and occupied my time. There was nothing I wanted to do more than to be back on that mat.
My mom could see how my mood has changed. I was not motivated to do anything. I was so lost with myself. She knew how important it was to me. I started to convince myself that I could find something new to do, but in reality there was nothing. I watched both my older brothers do what they loved and it made me so upset. My mom knew exactly what I needed.
I woke up one morning to her in my room. With the biggest smile on her face, she said, “Angelina, guess what!” The possibilities with her are endless, there was truly nothing she could say next that would surprise me. Until she said, “I scheduled you a tumbling private at CIA.” I was so exhilarated, but my nerves were flying thru the roof.
CIA is not a gymnastics gym, it is an all-star cheerleading facility. This type of cheerleading is very different than what most people think of when they hear cheerleading. It is an elite sport that corresponds with the floor aspect of gymnastics.
Walking back in a gym made my day no matter what would happen next. I was flipping back and forth having the time of my life. Nothing could stop me in this moment. I could not stop trying new things. I felt the adrenaline and it was like I never took a break. Running back and forth, flipping up and down. I felt like a cat that only lands on its feet. I was back and overwhelmed with joy.
As the private came to an end, there was nothing that could wipe the smile off my face. We were walking out when a coach at the gym approached us. She introduced herself as Paula. She was the coach of the level 5 worlds team. “What’s your name sweetie?” she asked me. In shock, I answered, “I’m Angelina.”
“What grade are you in?”
“I am in 8th grade.”
Why was she asking me questions? What was she getting at?
After so many questions and answers, she finally explained that she wanted me on her team. I was in absolute awe listening to the words come out of her mouth. My first time tumbling in months and she believes I am good enough to be on a worlds team? She saw the talent and passion in me that no doctors would ever understand. Who knew that one pick me up tumbling session would lead me into bigger things? This woman I barely knew had just turned my life around. Someone who was close to being a stranger had just made a huge decision for me. She brought me into a whole new world with one single question.
Paula offered me endless opportunities. That year, I experienced so many new things. I was traveling everywhere, competing against teams I only watched on T.V.. She took me as far as going to Orlando, Florida to compete at the worlds cheerleading competition at the ESPN center.
I felt on top of the world. I had been back doing a whole new style of what I love. I had overcome everything, proved the doctors wrong and I felt nothing would stop me now.
Fast forward to 3 years later, here I am today, a junior in high school. I’ve tried out for cheerleading every year. I’ve gone through an additional 3 new injuries. One for every year I continued putting my body through hell. I’ve been on top and I’ve been way below bottom. I’ve been through heartbreak, frustration, and I’ve been ready to give up more than enough times. I’ve been on the mat living my dream just as many times as I was sitting on the track watching my team. I’ve heard the voices of numerous different doctors and therapist telling me no more, telling me to stop, telling me how bad it is to continue putting my body through this.
“Angelina, you just had surgery on your shoulder. It is very unlikely you will ever be able to tumble again,” my surgeon told me. I laughed, looked at him and responded, “Yeah, that’s what they all say doc. You should know by now, this isn’t going to stop me from at least trying.” He laughed and wrote my reference for more physical therapy appointments. A process I’ve started to become accustomed to. At this point, I can pretty much be my own doctor and diagnose myself. I’ve sure been through it more than enough times. I can tell he wished I would stop, but I can’t stop. I couldn’t let them prevent me from following my passion, I didn’t want them to stop me, I couldn’t let these people take this from me. They don’t even know me, they don’t know what it means to me, no one will know. I’ve overcome so many different injuries, how could I stop now? So here I am today, still pushing my body to the very end. In so many ways, just waiting for my body to give up on me. There is no doubt in my mind that anything but the worst would stop me at this point.
I can’t say I would want to change where I am at now, but I do wish I would have done some things differently. The journey I have gone through has been so long. Sometimes it feels endless. The diversity I faced throughout my experience, changed me in so many ways. I learned how to conquer challenges and exceed expectations. The numerous decisions I was forced to face were not easy. Maybe my judgement was off sometimes, and maybe I could have done better in some situations. I will admit, sometimes I think about what I could have done differently, but I would never change my actual experience. I did what I needed to and stayed true to myself. My happiness and how I have grown from my background is what matters the most. Never drag on regrets from what you have done in the past, but rather learn from them and do things differently in the future.