Silencing doubts: Guerra's journey back into gymnastics

Silencing doubts: Guerra's journey back into gymnastics

Ari Guerra competes for Alabama, surpassing expectations after back surgery. CW | Amy Sullivan

There were many people who doubted her, not believing she could actually make a comeback, and at times, she was one of those people, but nothing was going to stop Ari Guerra from competing gymnastics again. Not even back surgery.

On Jan. 15, Guerra silenced any and all doubts.

She not only made her collegiate debut, but for the first time in almost two years, Guerra competed competitively. She knocked out a 9.900 performance on the floor exercise against Missouri, introducing herself as a freshman on the University of Alabama gymnastics team.

“Yeah, that was the start of her career at Alabama, but it was also the moment that marked the finish of her comeback,” said Guerra’s former coach, Alicia Goodwin. “That was a really, really big time of her life.”

Goodwin was by Guerra’s side throughout her recovery. She was her group coach at Texas Dreams Gymnastics and specifically her balance beam coach, which is where she started her journey back into gymnastics.

That journey was far from easy, and it all started with the ultimate decision to fix her back.

Guerra had just competed at the P&> Championships and was slated to join the National Team. She was supposed to go train at the Olympic Training Center in Huntsville, Texas, but she never made it there.

Instead, she made the tough decision to withdraw from the running, no longer able to ignore the pain her back was causing.

“I think that was the hardest thing for her, knowing she could do it and if she wanted to that she could have pushed, but with the severity of the injury, she really had to take into account that she wanted to compete for Alabama,” Goodwin said.

Guerra underwent surgery for spondylolisthesis, which she acquired over time as an elite gymnast. She said she had four breaks in her back, two in her L4 and two in her L3, causing her vertebras to slip out of alignment and cause her pain. She knew, in the long run, fixing this was a smart decision, for she had already verbally committed to Alabama, her dream school.

When Guerra originally committed, neither she nor Alabama coach Dana Duckworth saw back surgery in her future. Duckworth was shocked when she found out the news.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re 17 years old, and they’re going to put four screws in your back,’ ” she said.

Likewise, Guerra had a lot of worries about the surgery, but her doctor, Mark Wylie from Fort Worth, Texas, reassured her that he was confident she would be able to do gymnastics again. As an experienced doctor with a history of working with athletes, Guerra said Wylie didn’t sugarcoat anything – the recovery process was going to be long and hard.

Regardless, Guerra took on the challenge, knowing it was the right decision in the long run. She was sticking with her commitment.

“When she had the surgery, it was really a question mark,” Duckworth said. “Because how does someone come back doing the sport that we do with four screws in your back?”

Since Duckworth wasn’t Guerra’s official coach yet, she didn’t have much say in the matter. It was out of her hands, but she did sit down with Guerra on the steps of Coleman Coliseum and lay out exactly what Guerra had to do in order to compete for Alabama.

“Step one: Ari had to complete all of her physical rehab for all of her ailments, step two: Ari had to get back in elite championship shape, and step three: Ari had to be able to do gymnastics,” Duckworth said.

There was an understanding between Guerra and her future coach. Duckworth said she and her parents accepted the three requirements, no arguments made. It wasn’t what was best for Alabama, rather what was best for Guerra.

Once all was said and done, it was time for Guerra’s surgery – her first step in what would be her long journey back to gymnastics.

The hospital Guerra stayed at was more than an hour away from her friends and family. Both Goodwin and Duckworth were unable to visit, but that didn’t stop former Texas Dreams teammate and current Alabama teammate, Kiana Winston, from hanging out bedside with Guerra.

Winston brought Guerra a journal, but it wasn’t just for passing time like the coloring books were. It was something more – something to help Guerra cope with her surgery and the challenges it would draw up.

“Because a journal to me, I don’t really voice my opinions or my emotions, so writing things out really gets everything out you want,” Winston said. “If you write it out on a page, then that’s what you have to say.”

The journal meant a lot to Guerra, but over time, especially during her recovery, Guerra had to learn to voice everything she would put on paper, out loud.

Guerra had to go back to the basics. She wore a back brace, which she hated and was ecstatic to eventually be rid of, and Goodwin said she had to start with a walker when getting back on her feet. Guerra soon put that aside and was able to walk on her own. She’d spend her time at practice simply walking on a treadmill, working toward getting back in competitive shape – all while she watched her teammates practice in the gym.

“It was very difficult,” Guerra said. “It was, at times, hard on me because it was like, 'I enjoy this sport so much, but I’m not capable of doing it right now.'

“I was like, ‘This is never going to end. I’m barely walking right now, how am I supposed to do gymnastics again?’ ”

It was months before Guerra was able to do anything gymnastics related. She started out by simply walking on the balance beam, regaining her balance. It was hard for Guerra to hold back and not be allowed to do anything without approval first, and sometimes, it was a little too hard.

“You know, I snuck in a few things,” Guerra said. “Not cartwheels and such because I knew that was too much, but I snuck in like full turns.”

Full turns ended up being the first thing, besides walking, her doctor later allowed. Guerra said as soon as she got the go ahead, she was doing full turns all the way down the balance beam, seeing how many she could fit in. She wanted to show the world that she was making progress.

“She was the best full turner ever,” Goodwin said. “She was smiling the whole time.”

Every little thing her doctor and physical therapist would allow, regardless of how simple it was, Guerra was overjoyed and put her full effort into it. Slowly but surely, she started to dive back into more physical gymnastics.

Guerra said the first back handspring she had to do was the scariest. Because of how the back arches, she wasn’t sure how it was going to feel, but she loved having that fear back because it’s a part of being a gymnast. There’s always a fear when trying something new, and Guerra – during her recovery and even today – embraces that fear and uses it to push her forward.

She started on the tumble track, but sometimes that was too bouncy that it hurt her back, so she moved to the rod floor, which felt better. Then, muscle memory kicked in.

“It kind of came back naturally,” she said. “It was just there.”

After she overcame that obstacle, things started to unfold and come back to her physically. The list of things she was allowed to do kept growing and continues to grow today.

Once Guerra got back into competitive shape, there were a few setbacks here and there when stiffness would settle in, but mainly, it was all forward progress, and all her hard work paid off the moment she stepped foot on the Alabama campus.

Although Guerra isn’t fully back to where she once was, her coaches said she’s getting there. Duckworth said she reminds Guerra to be grateful for the 95 percent she can do rather than be upset about the five percent she can’t, and Guerra does a good job staying positive. Every day, she thanks God because although it wasn’t easy, she said it was all worth it. Now, she’s right where she always dreamed of being.

“Not just anybody can come back from a back surgery, but if you come back from this back surgery and just prove to the world who you are – Ariana Guerra – then that will make a statement, and that’s what she did,” Winston said.

Guerra is the only gymnast both Duckworth and Goodwin have ever coached who underwent back surgery. She beat the odds, and that’s something her coaches, family and friends are very proud of her for.

Her road to recovery proved Guerra is a strong young woman. Now, she’s proving she’s a strong gymnast. As a regular in Alabama’s lineup, Guerra has competed in six of Alabama’s 10 meets on either the uneven bars or the floor exercise, sometimes both. Guerra said there’s still some stiffness in her back, but it’s the same as any other everyday pain that comes along with being a collegiate gymnast.

“You wouldn’t even know I have screws in my back,” Guerra said.

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