Utah senior Hilarie Portell isn't ready to quit gymnastics, but there's no alternative. Friday's NCAA women's championships at the University of Georgia is her last meet ever, and to make things worse, a foot injury has stolen the opportunity she deserves to go all-around. She'll probably compete in only bars and beam.
"It's been a very emotional past few weeks," she says. "Very bitter-sweet."But I'll put my all into the meet and deal with my emotions later probably the minute after the meet's over."
Portell is coming off the best bar score in Ute history, 9.85 at the regional two weeks ago, and she's scored personal bests in every event plus the all-around (38.35) this season.
The other Utah senior, Sonja Ahone, also has to be satisfied with competing in two events, vault and floor exercise, on Friday.
But for Ahone, it's a triumph in a way. Other people, including her father, a gymnastics coach in Salt Lake City, told her she'd never make it as a walkon with the Utes four years ago, and she thinks she's proved them wrong. She's vaulted in every meet except one, when she was sick, since she joined the team, and she's been a floor performer in nearly every meet for two years.
"I would like to have competed all-around, but it's nobody's fault but my own," Ahone says, citing an inner fear of beam and bars.
Of the two seniors, Ahone seems more willing to accept forced retirement. A sore back and wrist and other nagging injuries are her body's way of telling her it's time, she says.
And Ahone already has another form of competition in her life. She has her own business and own office as a marketing/sales representative for a cutlery company. "That's the competition that will take place in my life after gymnastics," she says.
Portell has two quarters of studies left, so she'll ease out of the college community while looking for work soon. "I'm looking forward to getting on with my life," she says, but she also wishes she didn't have to let go at all.
"I still love the sport," she says. "I'm not burnt out at all. I've had such a good time with this group over the last four years."
This whole season has been Hila-rie's highlight, filled with her own success and with that of teammates. "A lot of people have grown a lot," Portell says.
Becoming a senior and co-captain gave Portell a new outlook that helped her gymnastics. She decided that if she told younger teammates to relax and have fun, she'd have to be a role model. "I put gymnastics more in perspective and enjoyed myself more. It's part of my responsibility not to get all stressed out," she says.
After an outstanding freshman season, Portell tried too hard to be a great student and great gymnast. The sport "for the past couple of years didn't make me happy," she says. Relaxing and enjoying it has made this "the most fulfilling year of my life," Portell says.
Ahone also wants to enjoy this last meet. "That's how we do best go out and have fun," she says.
"I'll miss it," Ahone says. She came to that realization at the regional meet at Utah two weeks ago. "I looked up at the crowd and said, `That's the last time I'll see this crowd from this angle."' But she's tried to put that out of her mind for this weekend. "I'm just going to enjoy it," she says.