Peyton Ernst thriving after Alabama gave her second chance at gymnastics careerBy Ben Stansell | 02/28/2018 10:27pm
By Ben Stansell | Staff Reporter
Peyton Ernst stuck her dismount and thrust her arms skyward. She ran over to her teammates, a triumphant smile on her face, and began dishing out high fives. Ernst had just completed her best balance beam routine of the season, earning a 9.9 and helping Alabama record a then-season high 197.075 in a losing effort against Florida in Gainesville.
It was an act of redemption – the culmination of a lengthy, hard fought comeback to prove she was not finished.
Two years earlier, Ernst had been competing on beam in that very same gym. Except instead of wearing crimson and white, she was clad in orange and blue. She was in the midst of her freshman year competing for the University of Florida.
Ernst had committed to Florida after a decorated career as a Senior International Elite gymnast, the highest level a high school gymnast can achieve, and a member of the U.S. Senior National Team.
Although Ernst experienced great success in the prep ranks, it was not without a cost. A physically taxing sport, gymnastics had taken a toll on Ernst.
By the time Ernst got to Gainesville, she had already had two surgeries conducted on her right shoulder. Despite having recently recovered from the second surgery, Ernst was able to compete on beam in all but one meet for the Gators thanks to a creatively crafted routine that minimized arm usage.
Ernst showed why she was so highly regarded coming out of high school early in her freshman year. In the fourth meet of the season, she notched a season high 9.925. The team she scored it against? Alabama.
A successful first year hit a road bump when Ernst suffered another dislocated right shoulder late in the season. She finished out the remaining schedule for Florida, but underwent a third shoulder surgery as soon as the season was over.
At this point, Ernst was presented with an ultimatum from the Florida coaching staff: she could accept a medical exemption scholarship and stay at Florida, but not compete, or she could transfer to another college and finish her career.
Ernst had been dealt a tough hand. As Alabama head coach Dana Duckworth later put it, “she can’t control the fact that God gave her really loose joints.”
Duckworth was right. Ernst could not control the way her shoulder joint functioned. What she could control? Whether or not she would walk away from the sport she loves, or reshuffle the deck and give it another shot.
Ernst knew what her choice would be immediately. She was not ready to fold.
“I just knew I wasn’t finished,” Ernst said. “I knew that I had a lot more to do and accomplish and I knew that if someone was willing to take me that I could help contribute as much as I can and hopefully do a lot more.”
The choice to stick with gymnastics was easy for Ernst. The process of rehabbing another surgery, finding a new college program to join and then forging a role in that program, was not.
The next step for Ernst was to return home to Coppell, Texas and hit the reset button on her recruitment. Her former coaches with the Texas Dreams, which produced Kiana Winston and Ari Guerra, helped her with her recruitment.
Although Ernst was friends with all three girls, she did not want to let those friendships be the deciding factor in where she would spend the rest of her college career.
“Being older and doing the recruiting process again, it was much more than just coming in for who’s the winning team or friends wise,” Ernst said. “I was looking at the schooling, I was looking at the coaches, the atmosphere, everything.”
Ernst found exactly what she was looking for when she visited Alabama and met with the coaching staff.
“When I came on and visited here, she [Duckworth] made it super comfortable,” Ernst said.
Alabama checked off all of Ernst’s requirements and Duckworth was more than willing to give Ernst a role on the team.
Ernst was headed to Tuscaloosa.
Due to SEC transfer rules, Ernst was permitted to enroll at Alabama and join the team in 2017, but she could not compete for a year or travel with the team.
“She’s really quiet in the beginning because she came in the middle of our year last year, right before season,” senior Nickie Guerrero said. “And we already have the relationships with each other.”
After the season ended and Ernst got to spend more time with her teammates, her personality began to shine through.
As soon as she met Ernst, Guerrero recognized how calm and sweet she was, but also saw a side of Ernst that very few people see.
“I’ve gotten to know her and she is such a little savage,” Guerrero said. “It’s so funny. You would never expect something like that from a sweet soul like her, but it’s just so great to get to know her like that.”
For someone who loves to compete as much as Ernst, a mandatory year off from competition can feel like a prison sentence. For Ernst, it was a blessing in disguise. She could rehab her injuries. She ultimately returned in Alabama's second meet against Georgia.
“It just felt really good being back out there,” Ernst said. “ Throughout that first meet I was just super excited to finish and I was just happy that I made it and got through it.”
Competing again has brought Ernst joy, but it has been her teammates and supportive coaching staff that have brought her the most happiness.
“What’s nice is Peyton’s happy,” Duckworth said. “She loves Alabama. She loves being on this team. She loves her teammates and we love her.
Since that meet against the GymDogs, Ernst has competed on beam in six of eight meets for the Crimson Tide. Ernst has been a key contributor on beam for Alabama this year, scoring above a 9.8 four times.
While she appreciates every chance she gets to compete, no performance meant more to Ernst this season than when she returned to the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.
This time she was competing for the Crimson Tide.
By simply mounting the beam and delivering a full routine, shoulders included, Ernst proved what she knew all along: she has more to give to the sport of gymnastics.
The season high 9.9 was just the cherry on top.