On the eve of the Olympic Trials, former U.S. national team member Jordan Bowers shared a post on Instagram in which she detailed for the first time the pain of retiring from elite gymnastics at the peak of her career in 2019.
The timing of the post wasn’t coincidental. Watching her former teammates compete at the GK U.S. Classic and at the U.S. championships in the weeks preceding Trials was painful, and even more so was the realization that her Olympic dream was irrevocably over. “I’ve always been dreaming about making it to [the Olympics] and being with those girls,” Bowers said. “So not being there with them was really hard.”
Writing that post and receiving the support of the gymnastics community, though, was cathartic for Bowers. “Getting it out there and sharing my story was hard for me, but I felt better about myself after that,” she said.
Back in 2018, Bowers’ Olympic dream appeared to be a real possibility. In her final year as a junior she burst into the international scene, winning gold in the all around at both the Pacific Rim and the Pan American Games. “That year I was feeling overall very confident and well put together as a gymnast,” she said. “Everything started coming together—my skills and my execution were both finally there.”
Until then, she hadn’t sustained any major injuries, which made it even harder for her to understand and accept what happened next.
At the U.S. championships that summer, Bowers was one of the favorites to win gold in the all around. She had a shaky day one but was ready to give her best performance on day two. After the competition, she said, “I completely flipped my mindset—I was ready to go into day two, ready to give it my all and show everybody what I can do.”
Day two, however, wasn’t meant to happen. During training, Bowers was on bars performing a Van Leuween when she felt a pop in her back, followed by shooting pain down her legs. She would later find out that she had fractured her L5 vertebra. Despite several sessions of treatment, the pain remained unbearable, leaving Bowers both scared, as she could barely move, and stressed about the upcoming competition. The following day, she tried to push through the pain and get ready to compete, but she eventually had to give up. “I went out there, started warming up but I was in so much pain I just could not do anything. That was really heartbreaking,” she said.
After taking some time off gymnastics to recover from the injury, Bowers came back even more motivated. 2019 was an important year for her, as it was her first year as a senior, as well as the pre-Olympic year. She then hoped to compete in more international meets, to be selected for the world championships team and to position herself as one of the top gymnasts going into the Olympic year.
“We had a camp in January. I had so many upgrades to share, and I was putting routines together. I was feeling super confident in myself again,” Bowers said. “My body was feeling good, I was at the peak of my skills, I was super excited.”
Her elite dreams, however, were about to be crushed again. Two weeks before the February camp, which served as the selection camp for international meets in Canada and Italy, Bowers was performing simple conditioning exercises in the gym when upon getting up, she found out that she simply couldn’t. “I had no idea what happened—no pain while I was doing it or anything, then I go to get up and I can’t physically stand up,” Bowers said. “I was in so much pain, and it was a different pain from the one it was a few months earlier. I had no idea what was happening, so that was even scarier.”
To add insult to injury, Bowers had to continue training to try and be selected for the upcoming competitions, but the pain was too strong to allow her to perform at her best. “I went to camp, I went through the verification process and it did not go well. I physically could not perform the way I should have,” she said. “I was in so much pain that it was so hard for me mentally and physically just because I had no idea what was wrong with me, and I really wanted to start my senior year off on a good note.”
Once back from the verification camp, Bowers consulted a spine specialist and the results were not encouraging. “I was told that I should not be competing at the level that I’d been competing at because it was detrimental to my body and I could do some serious damage to it. That was heartbreaking,” she said.
The following six months were the hardest of her life. As her body couldn’t keep up with her gymnastics potential, she powerlessly witnessed her Olympic dream slipping through her fingers. “I’d been working towards that Olympic dream since I can remember,” Bowers said. “[I was] feeling that I could actually make it and everyone around me [was] supporting me. … And then all of a sudden, my dreams are out of reach, and I physically cannot get to where I wanted to be.”
“I had never had any pain up until then, and for it to happen all of a sudden was very confusing and very heartbreaking,” she added. “I didn’t want my elite career to end in that way. I was not expecting it to end like that.”
Getting to terms with her body was hard, but even harder was the realization that she didn’t know who she was as a person. As she was unable to train at all for six months, Bowers was out of gymnastics for the first time since the age of 2, and she felt she was losing her identity. “All I’d known has been gymnastics—that’s what my whole life has been around—so having to be away from that, I felt I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I saw myself as Jordan Bowers the gymnast, not as a person.”
In retrospect, though, those six months were enlightening for Bowers, as having a life outside gymnastics helped her find perspective. “Everything is a blessing in disguise and everything happens for a reason, so these injuries have really helped me see outside perspective,” she said. “I was in the gym for over 30 hours a week ever since I can remember, I’ve sacrificed so much and I’d never really had time to be alone with myself and my feelings. Getting to hang out with people and figuring out who I am for myself and not being in the gym all the time was very eye-opening.”
Among the conclusions Bowers reached during her time off gymnastics was that she needed a change in coaching style, eventually moving gyms from Solid Rock to Nebraska School of Gymnastics. Her new coaches helped her increase her confidence in and out of the gym. “When I moved gyms, my coaches really helped me with getting me in a better mindset with myself and feeling better about myself. I’m not identified by gymnastics. I am far more beyond just a gymnast,” Bowers said. “Getting to hear that and having that going through my head was mentally really helping.”
Once back training, Bowers had one last go at her Olympic dream, but a new back problem prompted her to sit down with her coaches and family and reflect on what her ultimate goal in the sport was. “I’ve always wanted to do college gymnastics,” she said. “The Olympics have always been my dream, but college gymnastics has always been a dream of mine, so knowing that was my end goal and more of a priority than the Olympics, [I chose] to drop back to level 10 and focus on level 10 and college.”
Competing in level 10 after years of knowing only elite gymnastics was difficult for Bowers, and the pandemic made things even harder, as her gym closed, forcing her to relocate to Triniti. Getting used to a new gym was difficult, she said, but “they took me in, made me feel like family and did everything they could to keep me healthy and happy and ready for college.”
Eventually, despite all the setbacks and COVID-related difficulties, Bowers ended her senior season with a brilliant performance at level 10 nationals, winning bronze in the all around, tying for silver on bars and beam and being named to the national team. The result left her feeling bittersweet. “There’s always going to be a part of me that wishes I could be out there with my girls at the Olympics, but everything happens for a reason [and I learned to] trust the process,” she said. “I wasn’t meant for elite and that path, so finding new goals and striving towards those the best that I can and doing my best at those, it makes me feel good about myself.”
Her ultimate goal is now about to be fulfilled, as she will soon leave for Norman and start her college career at Oklahoma. Bowers has dreamed of being a Sooner since she was a child and attended Oklahoma’s gymnastics summer camps. Since then, the Sooners have won four NCAA national championship titles and positioned themselves year after year as one of the top teams in the country. “I really like that KJ [Kindler] recruits a lot of great level 10s—her team is not full of elites,” Bowers said. “Not having a team of elites, just great level 10s, shows that you don’t need elite athletes to win national championships. That sets well with me. There are not a lot of programs like that.”
Oklahoma, Bowers added, doesn’t win with star gymnasts but rather “bringing people in as family, taking them in as their own. Tom [Haley], Lou [Ball] and KJ really get to know each athlete personally and for who they are. They change their coaching ways based on the athlete, which is also very important. I take that in very well, too, because they treat us as their own children, and it’s very loving.”
She looks forward to being coached on beam by Kindler, one of the top beam coaches in the country, as well as to her unique floor choreography. “She’s so different with everyone. She really gets to know everyone for who they are,” she said of her future coach. “And that really shows in our floor and beam routines, which I’m really excited about.”
As Bowers gets ready for college, she knows her younger self who dreamed of going to the Olympics would be proud of everything she’s accomplished. “I never thought, starting gymnastics at the age of two, that I would even have a chance at the Olympics or even have a full ride to my dream college and be able to compete for them,” she said. “Just knowing that and how far I’ve come with gymnastics and life in general and how strong I am now, I just know that the little girl starting gymnastics would be so proud of where I am today and who I’ve become.”
She also hopes that sharing her story will help younger gymnasts have happier and healthier gymnastics careers. “It’s not all unicorns, rainbows and happy moments,” she said. “Coming out about that and making that realization is very important for everybody, and it helps the younger generations have a better journey.”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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