On the flip side

Sierra Dos Santos may seem like a normal student, but practices for many hours outside of school working to become a college gymnast

When 3-year-old Sierra Dos Santos started doing floor rolls and tricks at her friend’s birthday party, her parents knew that she had fallen in love with gymnastics.

“Everything was so natural when I was young,” Dos Santos said. “But as I got older, I realized how much the sport is teaching me, from discipline, to getting the rush of competing.”

Sophomore Sierra Dos Santos is a level 10 gymnast at Broadway Gymnastics, the highest level of competition for youth gymnasts. In order to compete at that level, athletes must obtain many high-level skills, like a major release on uneven bars, and able to perform those skills in competition.

After graduating to level 10, she practices five days a week after school for four hours a day. She starts with a 30-minute warm up, conditions for an hour and a half, then works on skills like a front whip for the remainder of the practice. She is preparing for her first season of level 10 competition, starting in January, and practices are both rigorous and time consuming.

“I go straight from school to practice and cannot start my homework until eight o’clock. It causes some late nights. It can get very stressful very fast,” Dos Santos said.

Dos Santos was preparing for her 2019 season when she began to develop pain in her right shoulder. Both she and her coaches brushed it off as soreness because it was the end of the season. She continued to work through it, and it eventually went away, until she began to train for level 10 competition three months later. She woke up one morning and tried to brush her hair, but she could not lift her arm.

“It felt like my shoulder was having spasms, but I thought it was nothing,” Dos Santos said.

After an MRI, the doctor diagnosed a torn labrum, but in a spot that he had never seen before. After her surgery, she was in a sling for two months, and could not participate in gymnastics for 18 weeks.

“After the surgery I didn’t know what the pain was and that affected my gymnastics because I didn’t know if I should work through it or not,” Dos Santos said. “I feared doing certain skills because prior to my surgery there was a lot of popping during those skills, but my coaches helped me get over it.”

The surgery also allowed her to step away from gymnastics temporarily to focus on her freshman year of high school and gradually work toward her full practice schedule again.

“In a way the surgery helped me,” she said. “I was able to adjust, and it prepared me to manage my time better.”

In addition to her torn labrum and other minor injuries, she suffered a sprained knee in January of 2018 in her first event of level nine competition by hyperextending her knee, in the first event and her first routine.

“I finished the meet while running on adrenaline,” Dos Santos said. “I placed third but after the meet I couldn’t walk.”

Dos Santos was unable to compete from January to April of 2018, and was out for the entire regular season, putting her at risk of not qualifying for the postseason. However, after she was cleared to practice again in April, she qualified for states and the Junior Olympics.

“I would go to the gym every day and work around my knee to stay on top of everything,” Dos Santos said. “Seeing myself progress drove me to meet that end goal.”

After her knee injury, Dos Santos placed sixth in the 2018 Junior Olympics qualifiers and competed in Lansing, Michigan.

Dos Santos wants to qualify for the Junior Olympics in Seattle in the summer of 2020 and wants to be on the gymnastics team at the University of Michigan in 2022.

“I knew if I kept pushing through [my knee injury] I would qualify,” Dos Santos said. “It made me feel very accomplished knowing that I am doing such a difficult sport.”