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Nicole Ellis celebrates her uneven bars routine versus LSU, which earned a 9.875.

Saturday April 7, 2012To the Limit: Ellis' Refusal to Quit Inspires Teammates

Nicole Ellis celebrates her uneven bars routine versus LSU, which earned a 9.875.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Gators senior gymnast Nicole Ellis talks about her injuries the way most of us describe the scrapes we suffered falling off our bicycles as kids.

But don’t be fooled. The injuries Ellis has suffered over the last 10 years would put some of us in body casts or the very least a recliner for months at a time. Anywhere other than swinging through the air on the uneven bars or twisting off the vault.

The drum roll, please … Ellis suffered a broken back when she was 12. Her crash into a bar during a new routine was not a soft landing.

She couldn’t compete for more than two months. She spent six weeks wearing a back brace. Her mom Dianne, a pediatrician, kept a close eye on how Nicole handled her first major injury. Up to that point it was only small stuff like a broken hand and foot.

“She had to come back very slowly from that,’’ said Dianne from somewhere in Ohio on Friday as the Ellis family drove the 14-hour trip from their home in Naperville, Ill., to North Carolina for the NCAA Raleigh Regional that is set for Saturday. “It never fazed her. She wasn’t able to do any of the events, but she conditioned all the time. To not be in the gym would just have been a different life for her.”

Next on Ellis’ list of battle scars was a major hip injury when she was a junior in high school. Thankful for Ellis she comes from a family of doctors. Her father works in medicine and two of Dianne’s brothers are orthopedic surgeons. One of them diagnosed Nicole’s hip injury and off she went to have a serious surgery that threated to end her Gators career before it even started.

She eventually returned to competition but missed the 2009 NCAA Finals due to surgery. She later needed a second surgery on the same hip, once again putting her career in jeopardy.

A lot of people would have left the gym and switched to tennis on weekends. Not Nicole, of course.

“She is so tough,’’ Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said. “She keeps coming back and coming back. There was a moment when I said, ‘Are you sure you want to keep doing this?’’’

Silly question, Coach. Why quit when there were more injuries to conquer.

And sure enough, broken bones, two major hip surgeries, a broken back, and the day-to-day bumps and bruises weren’t enough to challenge Ellis.

She needed elbow surgery after her sophomore season. When she woke up from surgery the doctor gave her the news.

“I don’t know how you were vaulting,’’ he told her. “The only thing that was holding your elbow in place was the skin hanging around it.”

Ellis replied that it was probably all the athletic tape that trainers used to wrap her up before meets. And then she began plotting her return.

That’s the way the 21-year-old Ellis has been since the day she started tumbling around in the gym when she was only 2.

“I’ve always kind of pushed myself to the limit,” said Ellis, who leads off the Gators’ bar set and also competes on the vault.

But why? Why has she kept at it through all the injuries? That’s the most common question her family of doctors, her friends and sometimes even her teammates have asked over the years.

“She has gone through so much,’’ teammate Marissa King said. “You can tell there are days she is a little sorer than others. The thing is, she’ll be sore, she’ll be hurt, but she comes in with a smile on her face. She is a true inspiration.”

Teammate Randy Stageberg agrees. She has noticed the way Ellis takes care of her body, eats right and stays positive to help offset the struggles of often competing at less than 100 physically.”

“She is an amazing leader by example,” Stageberg said. “She is in the gym everyday and gives it everything she has. Even if they say hold off, she is like, ‘No.’ She is our leadoff on bars. In that bar spot, honestly, I can’t see anyone else doing it. She has done it all year for us. I never worry about her going up there.”

Two weeks ago at the Southeastern Conference Championships Ellis’ 9.875 on the bars helped the Gators win a conference title. While she continues to battle the nagging injuries and aches that come with being a gymnast, she entered her senior season without a surgery over the previous summer for the first time in her career.

The no-cut summer has helped her have one of the best seasons of her career.

The Ellis family plans to be in the stands of whatever is left of Nicole’s time at Florida. They hope to make another long drive with five of their seven kids in tow in two weeks if the Gators advance to the NCAA Championships.

“It’s been a long hard road and she has just fought through it,’’ Dianne said. “She is a very independent person. She knew what she had to do to get through each one of her injuries. I know it bothered her. She’s human. What she showed [on the outside] was different than what she was feeling, I think, inside. She was disappointed, she was worried, she was anxious, and yet she knew the job she had to do to be successful.”

This story wouldn’t be complete without at least one question. Everyone else has asked, so why not? Why did she keep going when others would have quit?

“That wasn’t an option in my mind,’’ Ellis said. “I love everything about this sport. I love the adversity that you have to deal with. It’s really special. It’s been my whole life and kind of made me who I am.”

With her career down to possibly one meet, at the most two, Ellis said she wouldn’t change anything about her journey or her final team. The Gators are one of the favorites to win the national title and Ellis is confident they can do it. In fact, she plans to do her part to help.

“I feel I’m exactly where I need to be,’’ she said.

One final question: How is her health?

“I have a few injuries I’m dealing with now but nothing major,’’ she said.

Of course she does. Stupid question.


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