COLUMBIA — MU senior gymnast Julie Abaray stood with her teammates while being introduced to the crowd before the Tigers’ meet against Oklahoma on Friday at the Hearnes Center. When the introductions finished, Abaray and her teammates walked over to the end of the mat leading to the vault to prepare for the first event.
Abaray was dressed in a black warm-up decorated with glitter and the word “Mizzou” sewn on the back in gold sparkling lettering. However, when her teammates took off their warm-ups for competition, Abaray left hers on.
As a junior, Abaray competed in the uneven bars, the balance beam and the floor exercise in every meet for the Tigers. She also tied for fifth place on the balance beam in the Big 12 Championships. After finishing her junior season on a high note, Abaray had high hopes for her senior year.
“I was really looking forward to (my senior season) because I knew we were going to have an awesome team,” Abaray said. “We knew Sarah (Shire) was transferring here and that she would be a great help. I was really looking forward to being part of the team that had a shot at making nationals.”
However, Abaray’s dream of competing for a national championship contender has not come true. During MU’s first meet last year at the Cancun Gymnastics Classic in Mexico, some of the gymnasts went snorkeling, including Abaray. While in the water, she felt a sharp pain in her left knee and entire leg. Initially, the team thought it was a hamstring injury and she continued competing with the hope the pain would go away.
Still in pain after the season was completed, Abaray saw the team doctor to determine the injury. Fearing a torn meniscus, the doctor sent her to get an MRI, which confirmed the fear.
A torn meniscus was nothing new to Abaray, who lost her entire junior year in high school because of a torn meniscus in both knees. After learning of her left knee injury, Abaray suspected that her right knee might be torn as well. The same thing happened to her in high school, where the tear in her left knee was diagnosed first, and then the tear in her right knee was found later.
Her suspicions were correct, and Abaray had a torn meniscus in her right knee as well. After receiving surgery on both knees during the summer, she was left with a lengthy rehabilitation process that left her unable to perform any physical activity for four months.
Unable to compete so far this season because of the injury, Abaray has put in hours of rehabilitation trying to get back before the year is over. She rehabs at least once a day before her classes, sometimes twice. She does many strength exercises, including leg raises, calf raises, squats and lower body rubber band exercises.
While Abaray wants to perform again as a Tiger, she has ambivalent feelings trying to balance the future with the present.
“I am a senior and only have a few meets left, but I don’t want to completely give up just in case my knee isn’t torn again and it’s just sore,” Abaray said. “But if my knee is torn again, I don’t want to possibly injure it worse to where I can’t, when I am older, run around with my kids.”
Watching her teammates perform during the meets has proven to be the hardest part of Abaray’s injury.
“It’s definitely getting harder as the season goes on and this year has just not been at all what I expected and hoped for,” Abaray said. “It’s just really hard to watch meet after meet. To not being able to (compete) is pretty devastating at this point.”
Abaray is not only a dedicated athlete, but also a dedicated student and uses her academics to ease her frustration. As a broadcast journalism major, Abaray is always busy with something.
“I always have a ton of school work,” Abaray said with a laugh. “I always have some reading I should be doing or some paper I should be starting. I am always doing homework. It is not a fun way, but it helps take my mind off gymnastics.”
Abaray’s teammates are there to help relieve some of the disappointment as well. For support, Abaray can look no further than fellow senior and friend Nikki Bowman, who also has had similar injury issues with three ankle surgeries in the past and another one scheduled after the season.
“I try to get her to look at the future since we are seniors and we are almost done,” Bowman said. “Looking at perspective (is what helps), look at what you’ve done and accomplished and just try to look at the happier sides of things.”
Abaray gives back to her teammates’ support by trying to be a leader off the floor for them.
“I try to be an influence for the girls outside of the gym,” Abaray said. “I hope that the girls see my involvement with other aspects of the athletic department, with the community and with my academics. I hope they see that it does pay off and is worthwhile.”
Even though the Tigers have had a successful season, ranking No. 14 in the country, Abaray says her experience could help the team.
“I think it would have helped to have more seniority in the lineup because I have experience competing at the Big 12 Championships and at Regionals,” Abaray said. “Our underclassmen are doing a wonderful job, but it always helps to have more senior leadership out there.”
Abaray’s presence in the lineup is also missed by MU coach Rob Drass.
“She was a very strong athlete last year and did a lot of great things for us,” Drass said. “But I think her knees are bugging her and that happens as you get older in gymnastics; your body starts to wear down a bit.”
Abaray had hoped to get back into the lineup, or at least perform as an exhibitionist, against Oklahoma after learning a dismount off the beam that is easier on her knees. However, the pain in her knee would not allow her to compete. Abaray still hopes to get back this year.