Gymnast says sport has saved her sanity, and maybe her life
GYPSUM — Ever since she found the sport at age 4, gymnastics has been a sanity savior for Juliet McGill.
But last year, gymnastics may have actually helped save the 17-year-old Glenwood Springs girl’s life.
“I started gymnastics when I was little, and I just fell in love with it. I haven’t ever really stopped,” said the Glenwood High School junior. “Gymnastics has always been an escape from the real world for me.”
But the real world came crashing into the Gypsum Recreation Center last spring.
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Becky Johnson, the gymnastics manager for Mountain Recreation, has been coaching McGill for about four years. Last spring, both athlete and coach noticed something was off.
“She had these bruises that didn’t really go away,” said Johnson, “and it seemed to affect her energy.”
McGill and her parents decided to have a doctor take a look at the injuries. On April 3, 2018, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“The day before I was diagnosed, I came to practice,” McGill said. “Then I spent the whole month of April in the hospital.”
The news came as a huge shock at the gym.
“Juliet texted me, and all she said was she wasn’t going to be able to compete for the rest of the season,” Johnson said. “Then her next text was that she was at Children’s Hospital and she had been diagnosed with leukemia. I couldn’t believe it. She had just competed a couple of weeks prior.”
For nine months, McGill underwent a course of treatment that concluded in November of last year. During her treatment, Johnson and McGill’s teammates visited and kept in touch. As she grew stronger, McGill would stop by the gym to say “hi.” She counted the days until she could return to training.
“I am about three or four months into remission now,” McGill said. She knew that she would really feel she had reclaimed her life until she returned to the gym.
“If I don’t go to gymnastics, it just messes with my whole groove,” she said. “I just wanted to exercise and be back with all my teammates.”
Her doctors didn’t object, and her parents supported her decision. Shortly before Christmas, McGill began a comeback that continues to this day.
“She didn’t even think twice. She was like ‘I want to do this,’” Johnson said. “I tried to make her ease into it, and she was good at listening to her body.”
But Johnson noted that gymnastics is a sport that requires constant training. After losing nine months of training time, getting back to competition fitness was a battle for McGill.
“It was really hard at first, coming back. I had lost a lot of weight and muscle mass that I had before,” McGill said. “Even some of the basic skills were hard and challenging.”
But she gradually built up her stamina and at her first, post-diagnosis meet in Denver two weeks ago, she took first place in vault.
“I feel like, not even before long, she was doing the skills she was doing before she was diagnosed,” Johnson said. “That was pretty impressive.”
Last weekend marked another big step in her journey when McGill competed in her first home meet since she was diagnosed last spring. McGill is a proud member of the Gypsum Recreation Center’s Excel program Diamond squad. The team took second-place honors at the March 23 competition.
While she didn’t place as well in individual events last weekend in Gypsum, McGill said the meet was great nonetheless.
“We had a whole cheering section, and we got really pumped and had a lot of fun,” she said.
Gymnastics is already a tough sport, but in McGill’s case, simple logistics are even a challenge. The Gypsum Recreation Center program is the closest competitive gymnastics option for her, which means she has to travel from her Glenwood Springs home to train.
McGill demonstrates her gymnastics dedication by traveling to Gypsum to train two to three days a week and then making the trip a fourth day each week to help coach younger gymnasts.
“She is the kind of athlete that every team wants,” Johnson said. “Juliet has an amazing leadership ability that she takes on without even thinking about it.”
Now that she is back in the gym, McGill has a clear goal in mind.
“I am hoping to learn a bunch of new skills over the summer so I can compete at a higher level next year,” she said.
Ultimately, she would like to earn a college gymnastics scholarship.
“That girl, when she puts her mind to something, she really works hard at it. If that’s her goal, I can see her reaching it,” Johnson said. “She is a pretty remarkable young woman. I just can’t say enough about her. She is definitely one of a kind.”
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