FINDING THE BALANCE IN COLLEGIATE GYMNASTICS
(This picture story documents MU gymnast Hannah McCrary’s experience as a college athlete balancing gymnastics, academics and mental health)
It was a moment of pure joy—her heart was beating fast and it almost felt like a flashback in which she could see everything in that moment: all the hardships, the exams, the tears, the hard days, the great days. She wanted to yell, jump up and down and give her teammates hugs.
This was the feeling University of Missouri gymnast Hannah McCrary experienced when she scored a 9.925 on her floor routine at Regionals in April 2021, which qualified her for Nationals.
McCrary, originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a senior at MU. The 21-year-old is majoring in psychology and minoring in business.
Growing up, McCrary and her three younger siblings were always into sports, and she began gymnastics at the age of 5. She committed to MU in February of 2015, during her freshman year of high school. She is now a senior on the team and trains and competes in three events: floor, beam and vault.
Being a student athlete is demanding. With 20 hours a week of practice during pre-season, 15 hours a week of school, making time to eat, study, do rehabilitation, sleep and more, McCrary said it is easy to get behind. She says it is even harder to set a schedule, though, because every day is different. She tries to stay on top of things through time management, prioritizing and not procrastinating.
“Hannah is one of my hardest working young ladies on the team and really leads by example with work ethic,” MU Gymnastics Head Coach Shannon Welker said. “Quite honestly, in and out of the classroom, [and] in and out of the gym.”
Another element McCrary has to juggle along with school and gymnastics is her mental health. She said she feels like mental health awareness is growing in gymnastics and that it’s good to see more open conversations about it.
“Especially after the Olympics, people [are] realizing like, even though you're a professional athlete, you still have feelings,” McCrary said. “You have troubles.”
McCrary said she thinks gymnasts tend to have trouble finding the positives in every day because they are always looking at what’s wrong with their skills rather than what they did right.
“I struggle with that a lot,” she said. “Just kind of always looking for something to improve, never really feeling satisfied with what I'm doing or accomplish[ing]. It’s always the next thing. So recently, I've started seeing a counselor and kind of talking through stuff and learning to manage stress, learning to manage highs and lows of emotion, basically, to ground yourself and realize, ‘Hey, even though it was a bad day, there's something good that you can get out of it.’”
McCrary said it’s important to communicate with her coaches about how she’s feeling because if you are not present in gymnastics, you can get hurt easily.
“Just kind of being open about what you're actually feeling,” she said. “And then kind of self-evaluating. It's really where you get to know yourself and know how much is too much or how much you can take and kind of going from there.”
There is also a lot of pressure involved, which McCrary said is often self-induced. She said pressure can be good and bad, which is why it is all about finding the balance. She tries to cope and find that balance through positive self-talk and self-reflection
Injuries also play a part in the pressure aspect of the sport. When McCrary was in high school, she had surgery on her ankle and arm. Though both surgeries were minimal, she said it was still a roadblock she has had to overcome. She does some form of physical therapy every day.
“It wasn't difficult to come back from, it’s just really teaching myself to be patient and to let my body readjust and figure out the best way for it to use itself to get what I wanted to do mentally in order to do it physically,” McCrary said.
Some of McCrary’s favorite ways to cope with pressure and stress outside of practice include making phone calls, going for drives or walks, cooking, long showers, lighting candles and talking to God. She said her faith is something that keeps her centered because no matter where she is or who she is around, her relationship with God is something that does not really change.
“Knowing that I'm enough because God says I'm enough; Jesus came,” McCrary said. “It really keeps me centered, to know where my true values are and what's important and what's really not that important. [It] kind of teaches me to love the sport, love who I'm around, love myself. So, [I’m] just kind of very grateful to have that.”
For McCrary, the team is like a family, and she said having that support system is really important.
“You just got to be able to keep up and surround yourself with people that love you,” McCrary said. “And I've been glad to have that and also been able to give that to my teammates.”
Teammate and sophomore Sydney Schaffer said McCrary brings a lot of happiness to the team.
“Hannah is very supportive, and she’s very encouraging, and she’s always there to lift people up, even if she’s having a bad day,” Schaffer said. “It’s kind of like a back-and-forth thing. If she’s having a bad day, then we can lift her up, also.”
McCrary fell in love with gymnastics because it gives her purpose and she loves the challenge. It has shaped her into the person she is today and has taught her dedication, perseverance, independence, how to overcome adversity and what love means. Despite the stressful aspects, it is all worth it because she said the feeling she experiences while competing is irreplaceable.
“Knowing that in that moment, all the hard work and the love that you fell in [with] as a child that just shows up right there in the middle of the floor in the heat of the moment and then hearing everybody that you care about and they care about you just screaming for you, just happy for you,” McCrary said. “It's incredible.”