When a torn Achilles tendon nearly ended the career of senior Whitney Crater, it provided an opportunity for improvement — both for Crater and junior Nikki Bowman.
When the Missouri gymnastics team starts its season Saturday at the Black and Gold Meet, it is the start of a new era for the two gymnasts.
“Where we had one gymnast last year, we get two now,” Missouri coach Rob Drass said. “So with one person’s misfortune, we turn it into another person’s opportunity.”
This is the first time during her time at Missouri that Bowman hasn’t been nursing some sort of injury, and she says it is the most prepared that she has ever been coming into a season. She credits her change in luck to an event that Crater assured her would never happen.
Less than a week before last year’s Southeast Regional Meet, Bowman was frustrated with her performance. Even though she wouldn’t be competing, she went to Crater, one of the team’s top gymnasts in vault and floor routine, for advice. Crater assured Bowman nobody would get injured and she wouldn’t have to compete at the regional meet.
“Nikki, right now it doesn’t matter if you are falling,” Crater told her. “Just work on fixing your injury and work on fixing the vault so it is ready for next year.”
On the last day of practice, the unexpected happened. As Crater took off for the last flip of a floor pass, she tore her right Achilles tendon. Bowman was on the balance beam closest to Crater, and she watched as her future took a sudden turn.
“While Whitney’s season ended there,” coach Rob Drass said. “Nikki’s kind of started there.”
After Crater’s injury, Bowman was thrust onto the vault team for regionals. In one way, it was a dream come true because Bowman had always wanted to compete at Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum. At the same time, it was a nightmare. Bowman had not competed in vault all season, she wasn’t satisfied with her practice vaults, and the third-seeded Tigers needed to finish second to make the NCAA Championships.
On the night before the meet, the pressure got to Bowman, and she broke out in tears.
“She was like ‘That’s big shoes to fill, I can’t take your place, and I haven’t been hitting it.’” Crater said. “I was just like, ‘You can’t have any doubt.’”
When Bowman stopped crying that night, her confidence began to grow. After her vault, she was proud of her 9.650 score, unusual for Bowman, who said she is never satisfied with her performances. Bowman’s score was not used because it was the lowest of the six Missouri vaulters, and the Tigers ended up finishing third. But for Bowman, something had changed.
“I have never ended a season that I felt confident and was ready to go do gymnastics,” Bowman said. “We get time off afterwards, and I didn’t want to take it.”
With her newfound health and her performance at regionals bringing confidence back, Bowman also spent part of the summer in the friendly confines of her home club in Virginia Beach, Va.
“Being around where I learned everything and my coaches and stuff, it just kind of re-ignited the flame,” Bowman said. “And it’s like you need to get going, prove to everyone why you are here.”
Bowman’s newfound confidence has motivated her to work through injuries, and barring an unforeseen injury, she could make the top six for Missouri in all four events this season.
Taking Crater’s place in that meet was a jump start for Bowman’s career, but Crater had a long way to go. She had surgery on April 11, and then waited. It has taken a year for past Missouri gymnasts to recover from Achilles tears, but Crater was determined to compete this season. She could have taken a redshirt, but she is on schedule to receive a diploma in May, and she wanted to end gymnastics at the same time.
Crater walked with crutches for the next seven weeks, and about every two weeks she went back to the doctor to slightly change the position of her foot and get a new cast. It took three months until Crater got out of her boot, and she finally started practicing gymnastics again, slowly.
For the next month and a half, Crater worked on the uneven bars, an event she didn’t compete in. As September came, Crater was cleared to jump for five minutes a day on a trampoline. Two weeks later, she was cleared to jog, and two weeks after that, she could sprint. In October, she began working on gymnastics skills but only on trampolines and other soft surfaces. Finally, the week before Thanksgiving, she was fully cleared, more than a month ahead of schedule.
“When you take time off, you forget old habits or bad habits, and you kind of go back to your basics and back to when you were younger, the real way that you were taught,” Crater said. “I feel like my vault is better than it was before I left because, in a way, I had to learn it over again.”
Crater will be competing in vault and the floor exercise at the Black and Gold Meet, and Bowman will be in the all-around competition. Both will be on the Black team. Neither is expecting to be flawless at the meet, but both said when it really counts this season, they should be as good as they ever have been.
Although the injury was hard at first for Crater, she said she wouldn’t change history if she could. Bowman probably wouldn’t either.
“How aggressive and confident she is with it, it shows me like how much you can do with confidence,” Bowman said. “I think just me being able to look at that and see her going after it that aggressively, helps me.”