When gymnast Shelby Stewart graduated early from high school in 2016 and joined the coast guard, she thought her gymnastics career was over.
Four years later, only two months after returning from deployment, she is now back in the gym with one goal in mind: to compete in college.
“I want to be that comeback kid that people talk about,” Stewart said. “That’s the goal; I don’t just want to make a comeback. I want to make a comeback that is remembered.”
Prior to joining the military, Stewart’s relationship with the sport had been good but not easy. A talented young gymnast, she trained at VIP Gymnastics in Spring Branch, Texas, with Angie and Casey Boice. She never did recreational gymnastics and instead immediately joined the competitive team. She achieved good results, but after a while, she had to stop competing because the cost of the sport was too much for her family.
Thanks to a partial scholarship at her gym, Stewart continued to train and coach there, though she missed competing. “My coaches were super supportive and very generous,” Stewart said. “I was in the gym every day with the other girls, and they allowed me to keep training even after I stopped competing. I was very fortunate for that.”
Stewart stopped training just before graduating from high school and joining the military in 2016. Back then, she thought her gymnastics career was a thing of the past. “When I was in the coast guard, I thought I was done [with the sport],” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking about collegiate gymnastics at the time because I wasn’t competing, so I didn’t really think it was an option for me. I also had a lot of other things going on in my life that I needed to focus on so I could be financially stable.”
In early 2020, Stewart was deployed overseas. It was a difficult experience for her, which made her see gymnastics in a new light. “It was a hard deployment,” she said. “When I came back, gymnastics became an outlet for me. I fell in love with the sport again.”
Her plans for the future also changed. Stewart now wants to go to college and become a doctor. She would like to study biology or microbiology for her bachelor’s degree and later apply for medical school. Her ultimate goal is to become an emergency physician.
The idea of joining a collegiate team was a joke at first, but Stewart soon became serious about it. Since her degree will be paid for by the military thanks to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, she doesn’t need an athletic scholarship.
“[When] I started training, I was unsure about it but I just committed,” she said. She is now training at World Class Gymnastics in Newport News, Virginia, with Tami Harrison, Nici Marshall and Jubael Raakbar. “They’ve helped me so much, and they’re really encouraging,” Stewart said of her new coaches. “They know what I’m working towards, so we’re trying to be really smart about everything. We know what I need.”
Stewart’s experience in the military has made her see gymnastics from a completely different perspective. “I enjoy it more,” she said. “I’m serious about it, but I’m still having fun. I love being in the gym, I love working hard, I love doing high numbers. When my coach gives me corrections, I understand them, and if I don’t, I can voice [that]. I feel like I have a different type of ownership of my gymnastics today.”
When athletes do gymnastics all their life and then leave for college, Stewart added, the sport almost becomes mundane—gymnastics is what you do. Her perspective is different, though. “I have a different appreciation for being able to be in the gym now because I couldn’t do that for a long time,” she said. “I miss competing so much.”
Being accepted by any team, even as a walk-on, will not be easy at such a late stage. Rosters are already full, and particularly so this year because of the COVID-related extra year of eligibility available for team members that are set to compete during the 2021 season.
Additionally, Stewart’s routines are not competition-ready yet. “There have been times when I’m like, ‘Maybe this is crazy, maybe no one will want me,’” she said. Yet she still has hope. Some colleges have been encouraging, and Stewart makes progress every practice. Plus, perhaps most importantly, she has an iron will.
She looks forward to coming back as a vault and floor specialist first and later working toward the all around. Among her skills, she can already perform a front double on floor, a front handspring front pike on vault—soon to be upgraded to a front pike half—and a quite rare front tuck beam mount.
While in deployment, Stewart developed a drive that, she believes, will make her stand out in college. “I bring a completely different leadership and work ethic,” she said. “I will condition for eight hours, no problem. That sounds really extreme, [but] I try to push my body to the absolute limit and then I push a little harder. That’s what makes me stand out.”
“I’m very disciplined in my life,” she added. “From the moment I wake up to everything I do in my day, [it’s all] very disciplined, and that helps me be a better athlete, a better person and a better student.”
Stewart’s life experience has also helped her develop leadership skills. In college, she thinks those skills, as well as her maturity and past life experiences, could help her peers when it comes to even everyday tasks like paying the bills or changing a tire.
The next six months in the gym will be crucial to determine Stewart’s collegiate gymnastics future. It will be hard. On top of training 12 to 20 hours a week, she is currently working two full-time jobs, both in the military and at a hospital. Is it too much? “I just make it work,” Stewart said. “If you want something bad enough, you just figure out a way to make it work.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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