When senior Christine Niles was walking around on crutches with a broken ankle during her freshman year on the gymnastics team, she thought her career in the sport was over. But three years later, she has qualified for the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships, which will be held in the same gym she first
injured herself in.
Niles said she came to the college’s gymnastics team from North Carroll High School in Hampstead, Md., excited to redefine herself as a bolder competitor.
“In my club years I had a lot of fears and mental blocks, and here I didn’t want to be that person,” she said.
Niles earned a spot among the Bombers as a competitor in the vault and uneven bars prior to the 2009 season. Head Coach Rick Suddaby said while she was not as advanced as some of the other girls on the team, her dedication quickly propelled her forward.
“She came in without a lot of difficulty,” Suddaby said. “But she could learn so many new things, and her excitement and motivation helped make it a very successful start to her college career.”
As the beginning of her first regular season on the team drew closer, the stress of competition became too much for Niles to handle. After breaking her ankle during a meet early in the year, Niles needed surgery and was limited to swinging from the uneven bars in practice. But one afternoon following the surgery, Niles took one swing from the low bar and missed the high bar, falling to the floor and dislocating her elbow.
Following her recovery from the ankle injury, Niles decided she would not compete on the team the next season because the thought of performing the new skills she had acquired her freshman season made her nervous.
“You could definitely call it fear,” Niles said. “I had been injured so many times, especially in club gymnastics, that I was just afraid I was going to get hurt again and again. So it became hard to get going and more stressful than fun.”
Niles joined the women’s track team during the indoor and outdoor seasons because she missed being part of a team and took up pole vaulting.
Though she had no experience in the event, Niles said pole vaulting mimicked some of her gymnastics vault skills. Using the pole to propel herself into the air rather than her own strength made her feel more in control, she said.
“Competition-wise it was similar to the vault, so it was familiar to me,” she said. “But it was enough of a change from doing back handsprings that I wasn’t afraid, and so I was able to do it.”
It wasn’t until Niles spoke with junior all-around competitor Chelsea Robie last summer that rejoining the gymnastics team crossed her mind. Robie told Niles there was only one freshman recruit joining the Blue and Gold, so Niles was determined to apply her skills from pole vaulting and overcome her initial apprehension.
“I finally built up the courage to email Rick, and after a half hour or so I said, ‘Well, I wanted to know how you feel about me trying out for the team,’” Niles said. “The first words out of his mouth were ‘Let’s do it,’ and I was in disbelief.”
Suddaby helped Niles uncover her skills, regain her strength and perfect her fundamentals in about two months. Suddaby said he was surprised at how quickly Niles was able to reach her potential.
“Physically, she trained smart and got things done, but she had some trouble with fear,” he said. “Once we stopped letting her practice her balks, it stopped reinforcing the fear, and it put her a year ahead of schedule.”
Niles’ dedication helped her place seventh in the vault with a score of 9.25 points during the Bombers’ meet against Ursinus College on Jan. 22. She will compete in the uneven bars at the ECAC Championships on Saturday in Ben Light Gymnasium.
Senior Kim Callahan said the team looks up to Niles for overcoming her obstacles and is proof that anyone can conquer the
psychological strain that comes with competing as a gymnast.
“She inspires me when I have a mental block, and I know she represents that for a lot of the people on the team,” she said. “She is a testament of overcoming the fear that so many of us deal with.”