Alvarez ends her final season with a smile

Megan Alvarez is the manager of the gymnastics team after knee injuries.

Team manager for the women's gymnastics team Megan Alvarez, Friday at the Piek Gymnasium, where the team practices.

Patricia Grover

Team manager for the women’s gymnastics team Megan Alvarez, Friday at the Piek Gymnasium, where the team practices.

David Nelson

As her name echoed across the Sports Pavilion, senior Megan Alvarez stepped forward to receive her senior night bouquet.

She didn’t don a gray tracksuit like the rest of the team, opting instead for business casual.

Alvarez’s teammates beamed as the announcer listed her accomplishments. They didn’t include trips to the NCAA meet, career records or even Big Ten weekly honors.

Instead, Alvarez’s résumé boasted a positive attitude while she recovered from her fourth knee surgery, an unquestionable work ethic and devotion as the team’s manager.

In her sophomore year, after 15 years of gymnastics, Alvarez’s right knee forced her to call it a career and prompted her new path as a student manager — one she’s taken seriously.

Her first major injury

The Magnificent Seven — the U.S. women’s gymnastics team that won the gold medal in 1996 — captured the hearts of many Americans.

A year later, an inspired Alvarez enrolled in formal training at the Illinois Gymnastics Institute.

“I remember right from the beginning loving it,” she said.

The institute expected a lot from its gymnasts, and Alvarez said a college scholarship was on her mind from a young age.

“It was kind of the norm there that all the girls went to college gymnastics,” she said. “In eighth grade, I was thinking about these top colleges that I wanted to go to.”

She lived up to that dream — during her freshman year of high school, emails started pouring in.

But a simple dismount off the balance beam tempered her expectations.

“I felt the pop,” Alvarez said. “I was young, so I don’t think I knew it was an ACL.”

Alvarez said she emailed coaches after the injury to let them know this “bump in the road” wouldn’t hinder her success.

“There was no doubt in my mind I was going to come back,” she said.

After rigorous rehab, she did come back and decided to walk on with the Gophers.

University of Minnesota

Unfortunately for Alvarez, she tweaked her knee and needed revision surgery on her ACL just four months before school started.

The freshman dealt with one injury after another, but her teammates said she took it in stride.

“She never once complained,” senior Dusti Russell said. “She’d be doing rehab, [and] she’d be cheering for everybody. She just did her thing, and I remember wanting to be like that.”

Assistant athletic trainer for the women’s gymnastics team Emily Wendolek said the first thing she focused on was getting Alvarez’s strength back.

“We really focused on getting her quads and hamstrings and core just to all work together again,” Wendolek said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a quick recovery.”

The timetable for a return is roughly six months, she said.

It took a bit longer than that for Alvarez, but nine months after her second surgery, she worked her way into the lineup for a meet at Michigan State.

Alvarez posted an 8.925 on bars at the meet and improved that score a week later with a 9.55. Those were the only two scores she recorded during her college career.

“[I was] just doing a double tuck in practice — which is a fairly simple bar dismount — and it just tore [again],” Alvarez said.

Gophers head coach Meg Stephenson said nothing about the dismount was out of the ordinary.

“She didn’t do anything wrong,” Stephenson said. “If you watched it, you wouldn’t feel like she did anything differently than she normally would’ve.”

Because of Alvarez’s existing knee damage, doctors needed two different surgeries to ensure she could recover.

At first, though, Alvarez didn’t jump at the idea of a third rehab stint.

“I [thought], ‘Maybe I want to be done,’” she said. “It was so hard because it was my third time. I’m so thankful for Meg [Stephenson] because she pushed me to rehab it and be completely healed before I made the decision.”

Still, after the rehab, Alvarez decided to call it a career.

“It kind of just came down to the point where I had to think about the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to be able to walk when I’m 30. I want to be able to run around with my kids. I just want to have a normal life.”

The opportunity to stay on as team manager made the decision easier, she said.

‘I’m going to be the best manager I can be’

Russell said Alvarez handled the decision with maturity.

“She took her time to think about it and ended up in a great place,” Russell said.

Alvarez made her student manager debut at the start of her junior year.

“I kind of had it set in my mind that … if I wasn’t going to be the best gymnast I could be, I’m going to be the best manager I could be,” she said.

She’s carried out that goal over the past two years.

“We’ve never had a better manager,” Russell said. “She never complains or asks for anything. We don’t thank her enough.”

Through six years, four surgeries, three rehab stints and two years of mat-moving, Alvarez’s smile never faded.

“I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I truly believe everything happens for a reason. There’s a reason I had this injury, and I’m grateful. These four years are everything I could have asked for.”