At only 16 years old, Julie Røttum Madsø already knows big things don’t come easy. In 2019 she was the Norwegian junior champion less than a year after a severe ankle injury threatened to put an end to her career. The following year she developed an iron will to stay motivated during several pandemic-induced lockdowns that made her training almost impossible. And this year she navigated the intricate NCAA recruiting process all by herself, becoming the first Norwegian gymnast to commit to compete in college since 2013.
Back in 2018, all of these accomplishments risked never happening. One day in the gym, Røttum was performing an acrobatic skill when she landed at the bottom of the foam pit and fractured her ankle in several places. “That was the most difficult moment of my career, mostly because I lost everything I worked so hard for due to the lack of safety in my gym—a place I used to trust,” Røttum said.
Everyone thought she would quit, but Røttum found the necessary motivation to overcome the injury and come back even stronger. “I was of course devastated, but I knew that there was nothing I could change or have done differently,” she explained. “The only thing I could change was my future.”
The following year ended up being the most successful of her career. On top of becoming Norwegian junior all around champion, she qualified to the European Youth Olympic Festival and to the junior world championships. “My comeback that season was my biggest personal accomplishment,” she said.
After a solid performance at junior worlds, the future looked bright for Røttum. A few months later, however, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing her into a year of cyclical lockdowns that made her training extremely difficult. “Norway didn’t prioritize athletes at all, [so] me and many others had to experience several lockdowns that lasted from two weeks to two months,” she explained. “It was hard to stay motivated, [but] I used my discipline and self-awareness to be able to come back after every break. I’m still not 100% back after these difficult periods, but I’m making sure to take one day at a time.”
Despite the difficulties, Røttum’s gymnastics remains impressive, to the point that a few months ago it caught the attention of Pitt head coach Samantha Snider, who offered her a full-ride scholarship for the 2024 season.
Røttum’s interest in the NCAA began by watching UCLA gymnastics videos in 2016. She liked what she saw so much that she started thinking that one day she’d want to experience college gymnastics, too. “The atmosphere and environment seemed so positive, supportive and healthy,” Røttum said. “It was very different from elite gymnastics, where it’s usually pretty strict and very quiet. In many competitions here in Norway there are usually 15 people in the audience, and you can pretty much hear yourself breathe because it’s so quiet. I feel like through college gymnastics I can experience a different type of gymnastics.”
As she grew older, she also came to appreciate the possibility of pursuing both an academic and an athletic career at once. “It was very interesting to me that the NCAA gives you the opportunity to combine both athletics and academics, something that doesn’t exist in Norway,” Røttum said. “It’s common for athletes to quit after high school to be able to get a proper degree because it’s almost impossible to combine both.”
When the class of 2023 became eligible to commit to college in June, she started getting acquainted with the recruiting process, but it wasn’t easy. NCAA recruiting rules are complicated for everyone, let alone for an international athlete who lives on another continent, knows nobody to ask for advice and whose native language is not English.
“I found it very difficult to know what to do,” Røttum recalled. “Everything was very unknown for me, and I didn’t know any gymnasts from Norway who had done this before. However, the internet was very helpful for me in this process. I watched many videos on YouTube about the recruiting process in general—how to write emails, how to respond and how to handle meetings with the coaches.”
Eventually, Røttum’s determination, perseverance and hard work paid off. While all the coaches she spoke with were kind and understanding, she felt a special connection with the ones from Pitt from the beginning, to the point that she made up her mind about choosing the Panthers after only their first meeting. “I chose Pitt because it felt like a future home and a place I could belong to,” she said. “The team seemed so genuine and kind, and I absolutely loved the coaches. … I loved that they were straight forward with their goals, training philosophy and my future position on their team. I felt comfortable around them, which is very important to me.”
Once in Pittsburgh, she looks forward to being a part of the team, breaking records and bringing the team to a higher level. Additionally, she can’t wait to experience a culture very different to the one she’s familiar with in Norway. “It will be very interesting to me to experience a new culture and to move so far away from home,” she said. “I look forward to being independent and to kind of starting a new life. This is very out of my comfort zone, which is actually a good thing.”
As Røttum will be the first Norwegian gymnast to join the NCAA since Sandra Ostad graduated from Missouri in 2013, she hopes to inspire younger gymnasts in Norway to join college gymnastics, too. “I really hope that other gymnasts from Norway can follow in my footsteps, and I would absolutely love to help them through the difficult process,” she said.
“Gymnastics in Norway is very small, and you feel like you don’t stand a chance out in the world,” she added. “I hope my journey across the world will help younger gymnasts from little Norway have faith in themselves and believe that their dreams are achievable. We have always underestimated our abilities, and it’s time for that to change.”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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