April 4, 2014
While the 13 members of the University of Michigan women's gymnastics team sat on the floor at Rec Hall waiting to hear their names called as 2014 Big Ten champions, Stephanie Colbert stood against the wall on the edge of the arena and watched.
She yearned to be out there sitting alongside her teammates, her sisters, but she was here, instead flanked on either side by coaches and support staff. Since last August, this has been her place -- off the floor, not on it.
How bittersweet it must have been -- happy to win, sad that she couldn't physically contribute in her final season. For a moment, it looked as if she was fighting back tears. Could you blame her?
The past three years as a valued member of the team, Colbert had vaulted and tumbled, laughed and cried, fell down and got back up just like all gymnasts do. But as she was about to enter her final season of gymnastics, she heard some unexpected news.
Through the latter parts of her junior season, Colbert started to feel discomfort in one of her wrists, causing her to train and focus solely on vault and floor exercise. She battled through it, contributing on both events throughout the postseason. She received plenty of treatment and rest on the wrist, but as the summer went on, it never fully improved. It never felt right. A visit to one of the team doctors confirmed that she had Kienböck's Disease, a rare condition that is caused when the blood supply to the lunate bone (located in the wrist) is interrupted. When this happens, the bone can slowly disintegrate over time.
So, the doctors left her with two choices: continue gymnastics or stop altogether. The doctors strongly recommended the latter, mainly due to the severe injury risk attached to continuing. Colbert followed that advice, electing for surgery to revascularize the area with a bone graft and unload the area around it. The surgery -- which has a 70-to-75 percent success rate -- was successful, but it meant the end of her gymnastics career.
"Those routines at NCAAs, I had no idea those would be the last ones I'd ever do," Colbert said. "I've been a gymnast since I was five years old. It was difficult to have to end it so abruptly like that."
She didn't take this on alone. Colbert lives with four of her fellow seniors -- Teresa Arthur, Shelby Gies, Joanna Sampson and Reema Zakharia -- and admits that she would have had a hard time going through the process without the love and support shown by her classmates. For three months after her surgery, Colbert's wrist was in a cast and immobilized. Even the simplest of daily tasks became difficult to do on her own, so she turned to her teammates for help.
Those seniors are entering the final weeks of their own collegiate careers and empathize with the struggles Colbert had to go through last summer.
"As a senior, you know this is it. You know these are the last routines that you'll ever do. You're prepared for that," Gies said. "She wasn't prepared."
"She couldn't end on her terms, and I think that was the hardest thing," continued Sampson. "She was told when to be done. That's got to be difficult for anybody to go through."
Head coach Bev Plocki had been down this road before. In her 25 years of coaching, several athletes who had suffered career-ending injuries or taken fifth years had made the same sort of transition as Colbert. When Plocki heard the news, she knew she wanted to keep Colbert heavily involved, but the choice was going to be completely up to her. Luckily, Colbert didn't take too much convincing.
"I was hoping that it would help ease the sting that she would feel from not being able to compete anymore," Plocki said. "I told her that this would be the one opportunity in her lifetime to create her own job description."
Plocki challenged Colbert to come up with a list of things that she thought she could do that would bring a positive impact to the team from her new role. Colbert came back with 10-to-12 items. Among them: being a coach in the locker room, assisting the captains with conveying the coaches' messages to the rest of the team and having the freedom to roam around the gym and pick teammates up if they're having a bad day.
Between balancing what she knew as an athlete and what she was learning as a coach, Colbert admits the transition, at least early on, was tough. As the weeks went by, however, she began to find her voice, which was something she didn't have before as an athlete.
"In retrospect, it has really pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to be more of a leader and more vocal," Colbert said. "My first three years, I was sort of a 'lead by example' kind of person. This new role has helped me grow up a little bit more. It's tested me mentally and emotionally and made me tougher."
"Stephanie has been a very valuable part of our staff this year because she has the instant respect of her teammates," Plocki added. "She is one of them. She can get through to them in ways that we as coaches sometimes can't. I think it's been an eye-opening experience for her because she's able to see things differently than she ever did as an athlete."
At practices, instead of getting ready to work out, she helps create training assignments and provides input on lineups for that weekend's meet. At meets, instead of putting on that Maize and Blue leotard, she puts on dress clothes, but it doesn't stop there. She still participates in team lifts when she's not required to do so and conditions with her teammates after practices.
In her three-year competitive career at Michigan, Colbert never collected any individual accolades in competition, but it hardly mattered. What she provided to the team as a gymnast went beyond the gym, and it's showing now. It was the team-first attitude and sharp eye for the little things, which is probably why you can find her every practice over in the balance beam area, helping Plocki coach up the team's specialists.
So when it came time for her teammates to receive the Big Ten Championships trophy for the TV cameras, Colbert was on the other side wearing a smile from ear to ear. That is, until Plocki insisted she join them.
Officially, there are 13 members on the roster. Here, though, there were 14. There were always 14.
Forgotten? Never, not by this team.
"I know there are moments when she still feels the pain of not being in a leotard competing alongside her teammates," Plocki said. "But just because she's in a different role doesn't mean she's not a member of this team and not a member of this season class. There's nobody in that gym that isn't fully aware of her contributions to our success. She's as much a part of that as anybody."