Defying Expectations: After Devastating Injury, Payton Murphy Is Just Getting Started

When Payton Murphy’s feet hit the mat following her first competitive bar routine in over a year, there were tears. 

That moment during Western Michigan’s 2021 season opener was one neither Murphy nor her head coach, Penny Jernigan, were sure she would get to have again after Murphy suffered a devastating and season-ending neck injury after the first meet of the 2020 season. 

“I had no real expectation that she would be 100% back,” Jernigan said. 

Murphy was a star recruit for the Broncos, and whether or not she was aware of it at the time, there was a lot of expectation placed on her shoulders. At her first and only meet in 2020 she won the all around, her score tying her for the 12th best in program history. It was only a few days later, right before the team was set to head to Arizona, that the injury occurred. But that didn’t stop her from wanting to support her team. 

“Payton was in the hospital, and she asked the nurse if she could fly with us that week to go to Arizona,” Jernigan chuckled as she recalled this particular story. “I told her to go home and rest. But when [the team returned], she got right back out there with us. She was just this force cheering for us, really lifting her teammates up and was just a huge factor in how well we did last year.”

While her freshman season was far from the experience she envisioned, Murphy embraced her new role. Having a year dedicated to learning how to focus on the team aspect of college gymnastics without the added pressure of competing was a bit of a blessing in disguise. “I was so individualistic [in club] that I needed to be outside of thinking about [my own] gymnastics and be really put into the team,” she said. 

Western Michigan had an impressive 2020 season, culminating in winning the regular season MAC championship for the first time since 2006. The Broncos also tied the second-highest score in program history and set a new program record on floor. Perhaps most notably, all of this was achieved with a young roster that included six freshmen. Even though Murphy wasn’t able to compete, it didn’t stop her from being a key player on the team’s route to victory.

“I can’t tell you what an incredible teammate she was last year,” Jernigan said. “I just didn’t have a vision in my mind for someone having a season-ending injury who would play that kind of an integral role in us winning the regular season championship.”

This was not the first time Murphy had to overcome a serious injury. During her freshman year of high school, she discovered she had two stress fractures in her back. At the time, Murphy said she struggled with a lot of fear during training when she was getting her skills back. 

I wouldn’t go for skills that would be a breeze for me. Fear took over my mind and almost led me to drop the sport for good.”

This time around, however, she was able to lean on that experience to take her recovery slowly and not put pressure on herself. 

I knew right away [with the] neck injury I had to take it one day at a time, because I know how worked up I can get,” Murphy said. “I really didn’t have any fear because I saw all my teammates [working hard], and that really motivated me and wiped that fear away. I was a lot easier on myself with this injury and didn’t have to rush [the recovery] as much.”

“If she was afraid, none of us could see it,” Jernigan said. “She was on a mission every day in that gym. We were all in awe watching her.”

When the season was cut short due to COVID-19, Murphy’s road to recovery took a unique turn. Instead of being on campus, working with her coaches and the team’s sports medicine staff, she was sent home to Illinois to recover on her own. Perhaps in a twist of fate, however, this proved to be beneficial for her training: With Michigan under some of the strictest restrictions in the country, Murphy found herself able to spend more time in the gym than she would have had she stayed at Western Michigan. She wasted no time getting back to form.

“I told Payton bars was a long-term project—we’ll take our time there. Of course she went home, and then I was getting videos of her Deltchev and working her new Rudi dismount,” Jernigan said. “Then when she came back it was like, wow—she was back. It was really like a day had not passed.” 

Although Murphy doesn’t want to get ahead of herself, she has high expectations for both herself and her team. 

“My mindset now is definitely taking it one meet at a time. [My injury] allows me to be grateful for every turn, every meet I have,” Murphy said. “But we want to win MACs, our team is ready to win. We got that regular season title last year, but that isn’t enough for us. After that, we’re going to go to regionals. That’s a big goal for us, and I think that is going to be possible this year.”

Murphy is certainly someone who refuses to set limits on herself. When asked if she is working on any upgrades, her immediate response was, “My mind is spinning every day. There’s one on vault, there’s definitely one on floor. I like keeping gymnastics fun.” (It’s worth noting that Murphy has already shown two upgrades this season: her Rudi dismount on bars and a ring jump on beam.) 

“She’s got a lot of gymnastics left in her, that’s for sure. A lot of talent. [Assistant coach] Al Scharns is an incredible technician, so I really believe if she can learn it, he can teach it,” Jernigan said. “If we have the luxury of training when the season is over, how much fun will that be? The sky’s the limit.” 

Murphy’s confidence and determination in the gym has resulted in an incredibly successful sophomore campaign so far. On Feb. 6 at the Eagle Invitational, Murphy matched the second-best all around score in program history and took home the MAC Gymnast of the Week accolade, the first gymnast to do so since alumna Rachael Underwood in 2019. She has also already recorded seven event titles: two in the all around, two on vault, two on beam and one on floor. And Jernigan knows she’s only getting started. 

“I see her at the national championships. She is going to own several records at our school,” she said. “Payton will be one of the things that launches Western Michigan forward. We talked about all the people who came before her and all the hard work they put in, the things they laid down for us. She will be part of laying that foundation for others on the national level as well.” 

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Article by Kalley Leer; photo courtesy of Zolton Cohen and Western Michigan University Athletics

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