Utah State gymnastics will head to Cedar City, Utah, this weekend to compete in the Western Athletic Conference Championships. With the conclusion of the season, comes the end of an era for the team’s two seniors Amelia Montoya and Amanda Watamaniuk.
The pair will graduate this spring after four-year careers as Aggies. With plans set for the future, they are excited for the weekend’s competition, but sad to see this chapter of their lives come to an end.
As most athletes move through the stages of competition, they can go into the collegiate level not expecting much to change. In the world of gymnastics though, the differences between what the girls are used to and NCAA competition are significant.
Most athletes probably started playing their sport competitively in junior high. As they get to college, they just have to adjust to new teammates and a faster pace. Gymnasts, however, have been spending hours a day in the gym for most of their lives. From the time they can walk and balance, they are working toward their goal of a successful gymnastics career.
As they work their way up, the field gets narrowed down and the numbers of teammates get smaller. At the club level, their time is spent as an individual, rather than as part of a team. As they transition to college, that mentality changes drastically.
“It’s something that you don’t get to experience anywhere else. It was way different than club gymnastics,” Watamaniuk said. “It’s so fun having the whole team behind you. That camaraderie is amazing. I’d never had that before.”
That team mentality is what keeps the individuals going and motivated through the hard times. The hard times are something these two seniors are probably more familiar with than they would like.
Head coach Jeff Richards can’t believe these two are finishing their senior year. In his fifth year at the helm of the gymnastics program, they are the first athletes to graduate that he recruited.
“These are the first two that have come through the program from start to finish with me. We all had our ups and downs, but I can’t believe they’re seniors already,” Richards said. “It’s been really fun getting to know them and who they are, seeing them become young women and move on. These are two great individuals who I’m really excited to see where they go. They’re going to be great out of here.”
Watamaniuk was forced to sit out her final season as an Aggie after a significant elbow injury.
“It was hard when I found out I was done, there were a lot of ups and downs and a lot of crying,” she said. “You just learn that gymnastics isn’t forever. Your body just can’t take that. It was a matter of if I was going to end early or end at the end of the season.”
Watamaniuk started and ended her collegiate career with injuries. Coming in as a freshman, she was still recovering from ankle surgery, and it wasn’t long before she broke her wrist, requiring another surgery.
Throughout her career, Montoya has also been dealing with injuries. She began her freshman season as an all-around competitor but tore her groin muscle a few weeks in and was limited for the rest of the year. Since that point, she has been dealing with some minor injury or another.
“I’ve just been known as the girl who’s been plagued with injuries. I was a kid who always had injuries. I’ve just never quite gotten healthy after the first one,” Montoya said.
These gymnasts haven’t let their difficulties stop them. They have taken the hard things and made the best of them, while learning from them at the same time.
“It wasn’t the best of situations, but I made the best of the situations I was put in,” Montoya said. “I put up with a lot of adversity, but it made me grow up and gave me a more positive outlook on everything. I really do believe that everything happens for a reason.”
Watamaniuk was quick to agree.
“In gymnastics, you’re going to get hurt. It’s inevitable just because of how the sport is. Coming back from those kind of things, you just learn that you have to have that perseverance and drive," she said. “You have to want to be here. You love the sport so much that you want to keep going. This is your team, your family and your home. The gym is where we live and what we’ve always known.”
Unable to compete, Watamaniuk has spent the year helping out around the gym, coaching and helping motivate her teammates. She decided it wasn’t worth it to dwell on the unfortunate side of the situation and would rather make the best of it.
“You just have to take it as it is and still be there for your teammates. After this, I still have the rest of my life. I have new things I’m going to be doing and I’m going to need my whole body for that,” she said. “You just have to look at the big picture. I may be done, but I can still be here to help motivate and cheer on my team.”
Richards said he has been impressed with what these girls have accomplished even with all the challenges they have experienced in their four years.
“It’s gymnastics. As much as we try and stay away from the injuries, they keep coming back. They’ve both worked and pushed through them very hard. They’re both very strong-willed individuals,” Richards said. “They worked hard and kept believing and kept pushing. They kept me believing sometimes. I’m very proud of what these two have done.”
Coming in as freshmen, these seniors felt like they not only had their expectations of college gymnastics met, but completely exceeded.
“I loved our freshman year. It was probably my favorite of all four years,” Montoya said. “I loved the team I came in to. We had a great captain and it became everything I wanted it to be and more. It motivated me for the next three years because I wanted to help the freshmen have the same experience I had. We were welcomed with open arms as freshmen to a very inviting team.”
Watamaniuk said her freshman season was great to finally get into the collegiate competition and see what it was all about.
“You kind of have a sense of what you’re getting into, but it just becomes more real and more tangible once you get here,” Watamaniuk said. “Freshman year was a blast. Everyone was just on the same page. We always had fun in the gym. I would do it all over again, it was so fun.”
Both gymnasts were quick to cite the 2010 WAC Championships at Cal State Fullerton as one of their favorite experiences throughout their time at Utah State.
“We hadn’t had the most successful season and were kind of struggling. We were seeded sixth in the conference. We just went in trying to have fun. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at a meet,” Montoya said. “It was the most entertaining meet I’ve ever been a part of. I couldn’t tell you one score I got. No one knew what they were scoring. Everyone hit that meet, I don’t think anyone fell and we ended up finishing third. We just went out and had a good time and it was awesome.”
Watamaniuk remembers hardly feeling like she was at a meet.
“All the hard work we’d put in to every meet and every day was finally paying off and we had the most fun with it. It’s crazy how that happens,” Watamaniuk said. “When you relax and just go out and have fun, that’s usually when you do your best.”
Unlike other sports where there is still potential for a continued career after college, or at the very least opportunities to just play for fun, gymnastics careers come to an end with the senior season.
“I remember my freshman year like it was yesterday, now here I am ready to graduate. It went by in a blink of an eye,” Montoya said. “This is it. I’m never going to do a beam routine again. I’m done doing a Yurchenko Full on vault.”
With an internship and graduate school lined up, Montoya and Watamaniuk are ready for whatever the future has to offer. They look forward to taking the lessons and experiences from being a student-athlete and applying them in life after college.
"No matter how hard it seems or how bad a certain day is, don’t give up. It’s worth it. There’s always something good you can take out of every bad situation. You just have to keep finding the silver lining in everything," Watamaniuk said. "The struggle is what makes the experience. It may be hard at the time, but it’s worth it."
Doug Hoffman is the assistant athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.