Young gymnast unwilling to let go of her aspirations

Thursday, July 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008
Brittany Haines, 18, was born without a thumb on her right hand. She has competed as a gymnast since she was 2.

The first thing Vivien Haines made clear is that her daughter’s condition is not a disability.

“For her, it’s always been this way, so it isn’t a handicap,” Haines said on Wednesday while watching her daughter, Brittany Haines, compete in a gymnastics camp hosted by the MU gymnastics team at the Hearnes Center.

Brittany Haines, 18, was born without a thumb on her right hand. That didn’t stop her from stepping onto the mat when she was 2 years old and beginning her gymnastics career. As her daughter grew older, however, Vivien Haines was confronted with a surgery that would give her daughter more use of her right hand.

“They (hand specialists) suggested that we move Brittany’s pointer finger over and make it a thumb,” Vivien Haines said. She said she struggled with the doctor’s recommendation for surgery for her then-4-year-old daughter, until he offered a revealing statistic.

“If people come to them with a finger injury,” Vivien Haines said, “the doctors will write insurance companies and say their patient lost 20 percent use of his hand. But, if a patient comes in with a thumb injury, doctors say they lost 50 percent use of their hand. That’s how important the thumb is to the hand.”

The decision for surgery was especially nerve-racking because the absence of a thumb was hardly limiting to her daughter.

“The only thing she couldn’t do that any other 4-year-old could do was use scissors,” Vivien Haines laughed. “She had to cut using both hands.”

Brittany Haines never thought about her condition as a hindrance to her athletic aspirations.

“Before I had the surgery, I didn’t even realize it,” the gymnast said while camp participants flipped and tumbled behind her. “After the surgery, I had to go through pretty extensive rehab for it, but after that, it became a part of me, and I didn’t know any difference.”

In a sport that relies so much on hand placement and precision, Brittany Haines said her condition has limited her in only one way.

“I don’t compete on the bars anymore,” she said. “Ever since level 8, we (the Haines) petitioned for me not to do bars, because of the release moves and having to re-grasp the bars. We just didn’t feel like it was safe to do that anymore.”

Level 8 refers to the degree of difficulty in the skills that a gymnast uses. Brittany Haines explained that when she got into higher levels of competition on the bars, she had to start wearing hand-grips so she wouldn’t fall.

“It goes on these two fingers,” she said, showing her middle and ring fingers. “My pinkie isn’t long enough to reach the bar, so it would be like I’m holding onto the bar with my thumb. It didn’t leave much room for error.”

Brittany Haines, who will be a senior in high school says she only doubted her future once. And it had nothing to do with her right hand.

“After my freshman year in high school, I had surgery on my left arm,” she said, showing a scar on her right forearm that would make any athlete proud. “When I was born, I also had some bones that were fused together in my wrist.”

Doctors had to shorten her ulna in order to ease pressure on the fused bones. That pressure had already caused a cartilage tear and strained ligaments.

“Trying to come back from that was really difficult, because I was going into my sophomore year,” Brittany Haines said. “I had to get ready for college if I wanted to do college gymnastics. It’s a good thing that the coaches started to look at me after that.”

Brittany Haines attends the Pendleton School in Bradenton, Fla., which works with IMG Academies, one of the biggest sports agencies in the world. The school’s Web site says, “The Pendleton School was established to provide an exceptional education while allowing student athletes to train and compete in their sports.” She traveled to Columbia for the camp because of a family friendship with MU gymnastics coach Rob Drass.

Based on her investment, Vivien Haines has little doubt about her daughter’s future in gymnastics. Her only worry was about Brittany fitting in.

“There were times when other kids would say something to her like, ‘Oh, you’re different,’” Vivien Haines said. “I remember riding home with her one day, and she was crying, and I asked, ‘Brittany, what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘I wish I could just be normal, like everybody else.’”

Vivien Haines said that despite those moments of vulnerability, her daughter never looked at her condition as a handicap. Vivien Haines doesn’t see it that way, either.

“We are very blessed that she works very hard at the thing she’s passionate about,” Vivien Haines said, as her daughter got back to drills at the camp. “It’s an admirable quality. But if you look at any of these girls, you see how hard they work, and they have to have a passion for it because they beat themselves up every day.

“I can’t say my daughter’s exceptional, because when I look down here at all these girls, they are all equally incredible.”

For now, Brittany Haines is focused on her goal of finishing high school and competing in college. When asked if she had any ideal destinations for college, she laughed.

“Mizzou,” she said, “is looking pretty good right now.”

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