U gymnast Phillipi defeats disabilities

Michael Dougherty

In a year full of honors, including the Big Ten title and a Coach of the Year award, Gophers women’s gymnastics co-head coach Jim Stephenson said he thinks the tale of sophomore gymnast Cami Phillipi outweighs them all.
“I don’t know of anybody who knows of her that doesn’t feel her story is exciting,” he said. “She’s probably our greatest success story here at Minnesota.”
Phillipi’s story began when she was born with a severe clubfoot, which caused her right foot to be turned in at a 45 degree angle. She had two surgeries — one at 8 months and another when she was 3 years old — which eventually allowed her to walk comfortably.
However, doctors told her parents she would always walk with a limp. Her mother, Geraldine, started her daughter in some gymnastics programs to help in the rehabilitation of the leg, but neither expected Phillipi would excel at a sport which relies so heavily on balance.
“She tried all kinds of sports,” Geraldine Phillipi said. “When it wasn’t gymnastics, it was figure skating or soccer. She even had a tennis lesson.”
Phillipi proved the doctors wrong, the limp gradually fading away as she honed her gymnastics skills. The determined Phillipi never let her disability hold her down.
While at Roseville High School, she knew she wanted to attend the University and compete for Stephenson and his wife and coaching partner, Meg.
“My coaches (at the club level) made a videotape of me and they gave it to the U’ to show to Jim,” Phillipi said. “After Jim saw that tape he told my coaches that I should give him a call, so I did. Once I came here I loved it. It was so motivating and upbeat, and that’s when I started to view it as my first choice.”
Phillipi waited for an offer, but continued to look at other schools. The call from Stephenson finally came, although at an awkward time.
“I was going on a recruiting trip to our main rival, Iowa State, and literally 10 minutes before I left, Jim called me and asked me to walk on,” Phillipi said. “So I really didn’t want to go to Iowa State after hearing that.”
Despite her happiness with being able to stay close to home while competing as a Gopher, Phillipi only participated in a couple of meets as a freshman. She also had trouble with her studies.
“It was my freshman year and I just didn’t know how to study at all and my grades were falling fast,” Phillipi said. “I honestly couldn’t sit down and study.”
She knew something was wrong with her, and figured it might be a reading disability. After seeing a specialist for some testing and screenings, Phillipi was diagnosed with Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) last June.
ADHD is a nervous disorder which limits a person’s ability to concentrate. She was prescribed the drug Ritalin, which Phillipi said has helped her a ton.
After facing two very different challenges and overcoming them both, Phillipi was able to focus her energies elsewhere.
For instance, her off-season workout habits were so rigorous that Stephenson was convinced to insert Phillipi in the lineup on both the beam and the floor exercise.
“The quality of the contributions she has made is way in excess of what we ever dreamed of,” Stephenson said. “She was our first performer on two events this season, and the reason we put her first is because we knew she could hit a great routine and immediately impress the judges.”
Phillipi’s contributions outside of the gym have also been getting attention. She recently won this year’s Gavel Award, presented by the North Suburban Gavel Association in recognition of outstanding community service.
“The main thing is that she is a role model to youth,” said Phillipi’s aunt, Roseville councilwoman and association member Barb Mastel. “She is highly thought of within the city of Roseville, and she always goes out and talks to young gymnasts and kids and tells them, There are no obstacles, only possibilities,’ and that is her constant refrain.”
Talking to kids is something Phillipi said brings her happiness. She recently gave advice to a family whose 11-year-old daughter sustained a leg injury.
“Last month this girl got injured and she’s probably going to have to quit gymnastics,” Phillipi said. “She had to have surgery on her foot. She’s been really depressed, so I’ve been talking a lot to her and her parents.”
Her dedication to collegiate athletics, as well as her dedications to future gymnasts, tells why she is an award winner and a favorite of her coaches.
“She’s just a marvelous role model in everything she does,” Mastel said, “not just overcoming some handicaps, but her overall outlook and her goals to help other people.”