Ona Loper regains confidence after return from season-ending injury

The sophomore led the team in floor exercise and vault scoring prior to her injury.

Sophomore Ona Loper watches her teammate on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 at Peik Gymnasium on East Bank.

Courtney Deutz

Sophomore Ona Loper watches her teammate on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 at Peik Gymnasium on East Bank.

Paul Hodowanic

Ona Loper’s freshman year was more than anyone expected from the young gymnast. 

The Bluffton, South Carolina native was in the midst of a fantastic first few months, leading the team in floor exercise and vault scoring. She finished on the podium for both events four times each, including placing first in vault twice and on floor once. 

“I was pretty surprised with myself,” Loper said. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the pressure, especially in college, but … I was really happy with how I was doing, especially on vault and floor.”   

However, her success was abruptly postponed when she suffered a torn Achilles tendon in late February, which ended her season and sidelined her until September. 

“We were so pleased with her development and how well she was doing, so the injury was pretty devastating to her and to us because she was definitely a bright spot for us on the team,” said head coach Jenny Hansen. “We knew that for us to really reach our potential, we needed her to be healthy.”

The team came in fourth in the Minneapolis Regional last spring, which is a finish Loper could have helped improve. 

Loper said she struggled with the idea that she was not able to help her teammates compete the rest of the season, but knew she would be able to make a strong return if she focused on rehab. 

“I think through the [rehab] process, I learned to love the sport again because it made me realize how much I missed it,” Loper said. 

The torn Achilles was the first serious injury of Loper’s career and usually calls for a recovery time of 7-9 months. Loper returned to the mats after six. 

“She was so diligent with the rehab … she was so determined to have a great comeback. She came back ahead of schedule [and is] competing in all-around now,” Hansen said. “She exceeded our expectations in how quickly she’d come back.” 

After a speedy recovery and rehab, Loper has returned to the Gopher rotation. However, she has struggled to regain the consistency and form she had prior to her injury. In the first meet of the season, she finished 18th on the floor exercise and 22nd on balance beam. However, she remained strong on vault, finishing in second. 

“I need confidence in all my landings, especially since the numbers haven’t been there,” she said. “Having confidence in myself that I am as good as I was before.” 

Head coach Jenny Hansen is not worried about Loper’s rough start. 

“I’m not surprised [she’s] not quite at that level yet because in the past she was doing things she’d always done,” Hansen said. “We can see a difference [in] her now than even from the first meet.”

Last week’s scores against Iowa show she may be regaining the consistency and confidence she has been searching for. She finished second on vault, fourth on bars, third on beam and fifth on floor. 

“I’m just trying to take it meet by meet, [I don’t] really have too high of expectations for myself. Putting pressure on myself just doesn’t work,” Loper said. “I still have to rely on my mental training a lot more than I used to. Every week I’m starting to get back to where my confidence used to be.”

The team will be relying on Loper even more than last year. She has taken on a bigger role as an all-around competitor. She also has been assigned a tougher vault routine than she is used to. 

“As soon as she gets her confidence there, she is going to be one of the best vaulters in the country,” Hansen said.