In the fall of 2017 freshman Abi Hair walked onto the University of Florida gymnastics team. The Gators were not Hair’s only option, with an offer from Wisconsin-Whitewater as well, but as a Florida native, she decided to attend a college close to home and was attracted by the prestige of the Florida team.
As Hair soon found out, however, Florida was not the right choice, as she struggled to fit in and adjust to the demands of the team. “I really didn’t have any kind of bad experience before in my club gym career, so I didn’t really have any kind of background to know exactly how to react to anything,” she said. “In 2017, I was just going off the seat of my pants, not really knowing what I was getting into.”
After only a few months at Florida, Hair injured her back, and a conversation with the coaches prompted her to leave the team and retire from gymnastics. Although Hair acknowledges that in the end the decision was mutual, it still caught her by surprise. “I showed up to practice one day and 30 minutes later I was done with gymnastics,” she said. “It was really unexpected, and having something taken away from me—something that I’ve done since I was two years old—was kind of a slap in my face a little bit.”
Upon leaving Florida, Hair believed that her gymnastics career was over. She took a year and a half off from the sport, during which time she took classes at her local community college in Orlando, worked at her club gym and tried to figure out what she wanted to do next.
Her passion for gymnastics and the dream of competing in college never left her entirely, though, and in May 2020 she started training again, prompted in part by the opportunity of getting an extra year of NCAA eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I decided to reach out to a couple of schools, including Whitewater, to see what I could do and work towards. Jen was the first one to email me back, so I was excited to get that email,” Hair said, referring to Whitewater head coach Jennifer Regan.
While at first she was not training with a specific goal in mind, she added, once she got in touch with colleges, “I was pretty set in stone that I wanted to get back into collegiate gymnastics.”
Regan herself didn’t hesitate to welcome Hair to the Warhawk team. “We wanted Abi back in 2017, and that didn’t work out. But I always believe that things work out in the end, and this is where she was meant to be,” she said. “We knew how great she was back in 2017, and we wanted to give her that chance.”
Given her difficult past experience, Hair was initially a little cautious with her collegiate choice, but the coaches’ support and the good feeling with her teammates helped her make up her mind. “A lot of people say that when they go on their visits, once they step foot on campus, they realize that that’s their home,” she said. “With me it’s a little different because I also want to know what kind of atmosphere I will be walking into. Once I was able to talk to the coaches and interact with the girls, that’s when I realized that I felt I belonged.”
Hair’s doubts remained until the very end, as she dislocated her elbow for the third time just before joining the team in January. When the injury occurred, she wondered if it was another sign telling her that she shouldn’t do gymnastics anymore.
The Whitewater coaches, however, reassured and supported her, furthering her conviction that she should give the Warhawks a chance. “They were so supportive of me, and it wasn’t necessarily just the ‘Yes, you can go through this and you can get there,’ it was we: ‘We can get through this, we can work on it together,’” Hair said.
“That was what made my final decision on coming here,” she added. “It was knowing that I was not going to be by myself anymore. I had supporting coaches behind me and supporting teammates.”
Hair moved to Whitewater in January 2021 and fit into the team so easily that Regan had the impression that she had been there much longer. “I feel like she’s been here for four years because that’s how easy this transition has been, especially with the pandemic,” she said.
On Mar. 13, Hair debuted in college with a solid floor routine, which after many setbacks, she said felt “amazing.”
“Being able to hear my team in the background supporting me and having Jen in the corners of my floor screaming at me, getting me to go—it was just an amazing experience,” she said. “It was something that I never really experienced before, and that led me to believe even more that this is where I belong.”
As Hair looks forward to continuing to improve and enjoying her experience as a collegiate student-athlete, if she could give some words of advice to her younger self, she would tell her to “never give up.”
“There are a lot of obstacles that you’re going to go through on a daily basis. Some days are going to be harder than others, and some may seem like you’re never going to get out of it,” she said. “But that’s even more of a reason to never give up because in the end there’s always going to be something better for you, and you will end up where you are meant to be.”
Seeing Hair finally enjoying her collegiate experience is the most important thing for Regan, too. “We’ve had a lot of Division I transfers in my history here Whitewater, and they fall back in love with the sport,” she said. “It’s giving them an opportunity that maybe they didn’t get someplace else and we want to be able to let them get everything that they can out of our sport.”
“We want them to be able to leave with no regrets, and the biggest thing for us is that they have fun and that they enjoy their opportunity,” she added. “That’s Whitewater—we’re always giving people an opportunity.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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