After Years of Self-Doubt, Florida Commit Anya Pilgrim Finds Where She Belongs

In March 2017 at the International Gymnix in Montreal, Canada, a young 12-year-old gymnast, in her first year as an elite, makes her international debut. Anya Pilgrim looks poised. She finishes second in the all-around and the following day, she wins gold on beam and silver on floor. It’s a triumphant debut. No one can imagine that behind the excellent results lies a restless soul, who struggles with confidence and wonders if she belongs in the elite world. 

“I was struggling going into that meet, and [I was] incredibly nervous,” Pilgrim recalled. “At the beginning of the meet if someone had said it would turn out that way, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Pilgrim’s confidence in her gymnastics ability grew after the meet and continued to grow in the following months, as she put up solid performances at the U.S. Classic and the U.S. championships in the summer. 

Then her certainties began to crumble again.

In the fall, Pilgrim “was feeling great and learning a bunch of new skills” when her back started to hurt, prompting her to sit out the entire 2018 season to recover. Just when she was about to get back into the swing of things the following November, her back started to hurt again, which exacerbated her feelings of self-doubt. “With those injuries would come moments of doubt and questioning whether I was valued when I was injured,” she explained.

She saw a specialist who told her she should quit gymnastics entirely. After so many sacrifices, however, Pilgrim was not willing to do it. “I had come too far, had sacrificed a lot and I knew I had lots more gymnastics in me,” she said. She went for a second opinion, which was more optimistic. Thanks to a strict medical plan, she healed from pain completely four months later.

The following August, Pilgrim finished seventh in the all-around at the U.S. championships and was named to the junior national team. It was one of the proudest moments of her career. “Just knowing that seven months earlier a doctor told me to quit the sport and then make it to that point was incredible,” she said.

Making the national team was a boost of confidence for Pilgrim, but given her history of injuries, she continued to have doubts about her potential, which initially influenced her approach to the NCAA recruiting process, too. “There were times I wondered if I was good enough for [top teams] to want me, or maybe because I had injuries in my career they might not want me for that reason,” she explained. “It wasn’t until during the recruiting process [that] I thought that competing at a top program could be a reality.”

When she started talking to different schools, she realized how many of the top ones had an interest in her gymnastics, which helped her see herself in a more positive light. “Along the recruiting journey, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to so many amazing coaches, visit incredible schools with strong academic and gymnastics programs, and meet the phenomenal women at those programs,” she said. “I was humbled that those schools saw me as a potential contributor to their programs.”

In the end, it was her childhood dream that prevailed—she wished to be a Florida Gator.

When at age 12 or 13 she first began to dream of attending Florida, the college was appealing to her for what was important to her at the time—”it was warm, and the team was good,” she explained.

As she grew older, her perspective shifted a bit. She was now looking for a place that felt like family and where she felt she belonged. During her official visit, she got a chance to see how the coaches interacted with each other, and what she saw stuck with her more than anything else. “What stood out to me was how they were to one another outside of the gym—watching Jenny [Rowland]’s daughter play hide-and-seek with Adrian [Burde]’s daughter, the way an older and younger sibling would play together, and how Jenny’s dog went to Owen [Field] like he had spent long hours on his lap,” Pilgrim recalled. “They seem to genuinely like each other and spend time together outside of work. They were like a family.”

The coaches’ family bond, together with Florida’s proximity to Maryland and Barbados, where her family resides, were among the reasons that prompted Pilgrim to commit there. Plus, she finally felt that she belonged. “I felt like I could be my authentic self at [Florida],” she said.

Once in Gainesville, she hopes to be a consistent contributor to the Gators’ lineups. “I want to be a solid contributor to the team—consistent and dependable,” she said. “My goal for the team is that we show up as the best version of ourselves every day. Hopefully that also includes a national championship—or four!—but showing up as our best selves outside of the gym is just as important.”

To prepare the best she can for college, Pilgrim recently decided to drop back from elite to level 10. “I’m working on improving my execution so I can be as clean as possible,” she said. “I want to be one of the top level 10 athletes in the country.” 

Her level 10 campaign has started off on a high note. Just last weekend in her first meet of the season, Pilgrim posted a huge 39.025. She couldn’t ask for a better start.

While the journey ahead looks bright, what has the journey so far taught her? “One of the most important things I have learned is the importance of my belief in myself,” she said. “There will be times people will put their own limitations on you, but you have to trust yourself and believe in your capabilities.” 

“The journey will not always look as you imagined it,” she added, “but it’s your journey, and nobody can take that away from you.”

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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