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‘We had so many tough days’: Gophers gymnastics’ Fortman and Sirjord are ready to make splashes in their sophomore campaigns

Sophomores Erin Fortman and Ella Sirjord each suffered a torn ACL as freshmen in the 2021 season.
Image by Brad Rempel – Gopher Athletics
Erin Fortman performs her floor routine during a meet against Iowa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.

During a practice in December 2020 before the Gophers’ 2021 gymnastics season started in January, sophomore Ella Sirjord was doing her routine series on beam at Peik Gymnasium, but then found herself lying on the mat, saying, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong.’

During her senior year at Andover High School in Minnesota, Sirjord tore her ACL. However, she recovered to prepare for her freshman season with the Gophers.

Fast forward to that day in December at Peik Gymnasium. Sirjord knew something was wrong with her right leg, which had the previous ACL tear, and was unsure what happened. It didn’t feel like an ACL tear, considering what the first one felt like during her senior year.

“I was going to do the intrasquad that day,” Sirjord said. “We were doing the huddle and going back and forth. [But] I felt so off, and I was like ‘I can’t [compete].’”

Quickly after the huddle, Sirjord went to the Gophers gymnastics trainer, Shanice Cheatham, to express her concern with her leg.

Cheatham, who joined the Gophers Athletic Medicine staff in 2018 as an Assistant Athletic Trainer, completed tests to see if anything was wrong. She did not find any significant issues in those tests, until later that day when she did the tests again and delivered heartbreaking news to Sirjord: she had torn her right ACL for a second consecutive year, as well as her meniscus.

“It’s been a journey,” Sirjord said. “My first ACL [injury], I had a great surgeon and it was great, but I just did not have the medical staff and resources to do rehab super well. So this one’s been different with Shanice. Our medical staff has been super great.”

Sirjord’s ACL tear marked a return to the lengthy recovery process and the end of her freshman campaign before the season had even started.

‘It was a freak accident’

As Minnesota’s 2021 season got underway with Sirjord sidelined, one of her sophomore counterparts Erin Fortman made her collegiate debut in the Gophers’ first meet of the season.

Fortman, originally from Blaine, Minn., put on a dazzling show in her debut on floor, producing a score of 9.850 to help Minnesota win over Iowa.

“I had been training floor that whole preseason and felt really good,” Fortman said. “Coming out of that first meet, I felt really strong and was excited to compete at Michigan again.”

With her performance from opening week, Gophers head coach Jenny Hansen decided to keep Fortman in the floor lineup against the Wolverines, the most recent Big Ten champions at the time.

Before the meet, Fortman experienced some tightness in her knee. She said she was not feeling 100%, but nothing severe enough to keep her from competing.

Like her debut, Fortman’s routine was smooth sailing leading into the final pass, and then things dramatically changed as she ran to complete it.

“In that last pass, I felt a pop in the middle of my pass and sat down,” Fortman said. “[I] was very unsure of what happened to my knee and very uneasy getting up to finish the routine.”

After Fortman’s routine, Cheatham found her and completed various tests, just as she did for Sirjord.

Cheatham knew after the tests that it was an ACL tear in Fortman’s right leg and waited until later that night to break the news, which came as a shock to both of them.

“It was very out of the blue,” Fortman said. “Even rewatching the videos, [Cheatham] didn’t notice anything had gone wrong. It was a freak accident. It was really a surprise.”

‘We can motivate each other’

Not even a month into the 2021 season, Minnesota lost both Sirjord and Fortman to season-ending ACL injuries.

Their injuries also came at a difficult time. The two spent countless hours preparing for their freshmen seasons while dealing with COVID-19, school and other responsibilities.

But for Sirjord, Fortman’s injury came as a light in the dark for her second rehab journey.

“Obviously, I would never wish anyone to get injured, ever. Erin called me the night she tore her ACL, and we had a heart-to-heart. It was so sad,” Sirjord said. “But deep down, I was like we can motivate each other. You see one person do something, you’re like, ‘I can do it too.’”

Fortman felt the same way. Her ACL tear was the first lower-body injury she has suffered. She felt that having Sirjord, who has experienced this rehab before, helped her through the process.

“Thank goodness I also had Ella going through this. Me and Ella got really close, and we were able to mentally support each other because we were going through the same thing,” Fortman said. “Me and Ella would just sit in the training room together and do our rehab. Just having someone with you makes it so much easier.”

Sirjord noted her second rehab went much better because she had Fortman and Cheatham to help her through everything, expressing that it was hard to motivate herself through the first one.

Throughout all the days full of pain, sweat and tears, they would pick each other up on bad days and act as each other’s motivators through every rehab session.

“We had so many tough days. She [Sirjord] noticed when I was struggling,” Fortman said. “Vice versa, I knew how she was feeling in those moments.”

Return to action

As Fortman and Sirjord came back after making full recoveries, they still had mental barriers they needed to overcome.

Fortman was apprehensive about returning to gymnastics and the team she grew up adoring just a short drive away from her hometown.

“My knee didn’t feel strong. I wasn’t sure if I should be doing stuff and wasn’t trusting my body anymore,” Fortman said. “At first, I was like, ‘Do I even want to get back? Am I strong enough? Am I mentally prepared to do this?’”

As she got back into practice, Fortman began on bars completing simple swings and handstands, and her fire quickly reignited from there. Once she got the little things back, she realized how badly she wanted to be back in the floor lineup and eventually compete on bars.

Sirjord was nervous about completing her first-hand-lay on beam, the skill that caused her to tear her ACL. Once she did it, she said it was ‘a big accomplishment.’

On Jan. 7, Fortman and Sirjord made their returns at the Gophers’ intrasquad meet, donning their maroon and gold leotards. Fortman competed on bars, while Sirjord competed on bars and beam.

“Being able to hit my bar routine when I needed to just gave me the confidence to continue to push it through the season. I’m just so excited to be out there with the team,” Fortman said. “I would love to make a floor and a bar lineup at some point, but my goal this season is just to be available when the team needs me.”

“It was my first time out there in two years, so that was big for me,” Sirjord said. “I just want to keep progressing. I feel like I’m getting there. The time off allowed me to do a lot of visualization.”

Minnesota (1-0) defeated Iowa and UCLA on Monday in their season opener after scoring 196.900 points in front of a record-breaking crowd. While Fortman and Sirjord did not compete, they will be important to the Gophers’ success as the season progresses.

“We want to pick up from where we left off from last year. We had such a great season last year, and we all know what we’re capable of,” Sirjord said. “We want to make it to nationals and get those 197s.”

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