Coming back, again and again

Susan Filkins

On her 18th birthday, gymnast Jenny Mazzone experienced a nightmare. It started in her club gym in Sparks, Nev. It ended in the emergency room.
“I twisted my knee inwards and heard it rip,” Mazzone said.
Attempting to land a dismount off the uneven bars, she landed on an old mat with a dip in it, creating an uneven surface. When she heard the sound, she knew she had done something wrong.
Doctors told Mazzone she had slightly sprained her right knee. Mazzone knew otherwise. She eventually learned she had torn her anterior crucial ligament. At that point, the doctors told Mazzone she would never compete in gymnastics again.
She had signed with Minnesota four months earlier. When the injury happened, Mazzone’s gymnastics plans all became a blur.
“That was so hard because I have done it since I was five,” Mazzone said of living with the injury. “It was really upsetting.”
Not satisfied with what she heard from her original doctors, Mazzone went to a special surgeon for athletes in Colorado. There, she was told she could come back in six to nine months.
Not willing to give up, Mazzone continued to train and regain her strength. Six months after surgery, chapter two of the nightmare began.
Attempting to come back too early after the first surgery, Mazzone tore her medial cartilage on the same knee trying to land a vault.
“I was working on stuff that I shouldn’t have been working on that soon,” she said. “I was landing on uneven surfaces and my muscles weren’t strong enough.”
Two surgeries could potentially wipe away a future in gymnastics. Mazzone flirted with the idea of quitting.
“After I hurt it the second time, I was so frustrated,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I am sick of this. I hate this. I am tired of it. Why am I doing it to myself?'”
The news of Mazzone’s knee surgeries disturbed Gophers coach Jim Stephenson. At the same time, he reassured Mazzone he would take care of her at Minnesota.
“We were distraught,” Stephenson said. “We knew how enthusiastic she was, and it was a huge set-back for her. We knew we were looking at her being completely unproductive in her first year.”
Mazzone was a little nervous about coming to Minnesota after taking a summer off from gymnastics. She was excited about competing on the college level but knew she would be behind athletically.
“I had to re-learn things I could do easily before,” Mazzone said. “There was also the fear factor — since I had torn it twice — that I might do it again.”
Last year, Mazzone only competed in exhibitions for the Gophers. With the movements in her knee restricted, she was forced to give up the vault and floor exercise.
“It was really frustrating,” Mazzone said. “Sometimes it felt like I wasn’t as much a part of the team, but I am glad I got through it all.”
Stephenson remained positive about Mazzone’s potential to recover from her injuries. The coach decided not to redshirt Mazzone based on her attitude and persistence. He was also prepared to put her in competition toward the end of the season.
Mazzone competed the first time for points last weekend in Michigan. Although the Gophers fell to the Wolverines, Mazzone achieved a long-awaited personal accomplishment: competition.
“It was exciting, but it was hard because it was a lot more pressure,” she said. “I felt like everybody was depending on me. I had never, ever felt that before in my life.”
Mazzone’s relentless desire to perform gymnastics brought her back from hardship. After numerous doubts and disappointments, Stephenson hopes for a positive future for Mazzone.
“Right now, she is where we hoped she would be 12 months ago,” Stephenson said. “She maintained herself her freshman year. Since then, she learned some things and developed.”