by Anna Rose Johnson
The week before she turned six years old, Lauren Maxwell began gymnastics, the sport that would shape her life for the next eleven and a half years. Despite countless setbacks that have threatened to jeopardize her dream, her ultimate goal is still to compete in college, and she’s not ready to give up yet.
THE FIRST GYM LAUREN REPRESENTED was in Southern California, and she was readily invited to compete for their pre-team. “Unfortunately, shortly after this invitation we found out we were moving to Northern California,” Lauren recalls. She eventually settled at a new gym in Oroville, despite the fact that it was a half-hour away from their new home in Chico. But after three years of successful competitions in Oroville, the city bought the gym. “Things became uncertain as to [whether or not] they would keep the gymnastics program open,” says Lauren.
So she made the move to Athletics Unlimited in the city of Anderson, about an hour north of Lauren’s home, but this arrangement was short-lived as well. “In the middle of my Level 7 season, our whole team picked up and moved to a gym in Redding (about an hour and 20 minutes away) because of complications with new ownership. It was not easy doing this in the middle of the season; it took an emotional toll on everyone.”
At the conclusion of her Level 7 season, Lauren chose to stay with the new coach who had taught her so much. “Since I loved my coach JD and progressed so much under him, we decided I would follow him to the new gym [where] he had taken a job in Roseville,” she recalls.
Now commuting two hours from home each way, Lauren had to adjust her schedule and leave school early each day in order to make it to the gym on time. Fortunately, Lauren enjoyed the support of her principal and teachers, who understood her dedication to gymnastics and often attended her competitions. “My first grade teacher still tries to come to one meet each season, and it means so much to me!” says Lauren. “It was not easy driving that much every day, and my mom had a bunch of health problems and surgeries during this time so I know it took a toll on her. She knew how important this sport was to me, so she pushed through the pain. It didn’t help that the commuter car we had for these rides had an air conditioner that imploded. In the heat of the summer I would use a water bottle and spray my mom and me. Not even that stopped us!”
In 2012, Lauren settled into a permanent gym when her family moved to the Bay Area. This club was San Mateo Gymnastics, a well-known facility that produced former elite gymnast Erin Macadaeg, whom Lauren counts as one of her inspirations. “I have been there over four and a half years and am so grateful for everything I have learned at this gym,” she says. “It’s five minutes from our house, so that is heaven as well!”
Lauren’s career quickly accelerated under the tutelage of her San Mateo coaches as she rose to Level 8. She won two gold medals and a silver at the prestigious WOGA Classic in 2013, and she followed up that result with gold medals on floor and in the all-around at the 2014 State Championships. Lauren says that her results at State Championships, in addition to being named to the Level 8 state team, were some of the greatest accomplishments of her career, “mainly because someone told me I could not do it,” she remembers. “Needless to say, I proved them wrong. I’ve had lot of people [tell] me that I cannot do certain things, and that has always been a major motivator for me.”
I’ve had lot of people [tell] me that I cannot do certain things, and that has always been a major motivator for me.
LAUREN IS NO STRANGER TO THE COMEBACK TRAIL. For two years, she struggled with growth-related injuries, but she refused to give up, always returning to the competition floor for another season. “My teammates are the ones that get me through hardships, they are my sisters and I tell them everything,” says Lauren. “We all experience things, even outside of gym.” She is also continually inspired by her grandmother, who passed away from cancer several years ago. “[During times of injury] I think about people like my grandma who fought for her life,” says Lauren. “I do not always have the strength but I know with every thought of doubt, my goals get further away.”
Lauren’s mom, Michelle, believes that gymnastics is the toughest sport in the world, both mentally and physically. “As a mom, we of course always want them to give it their all and say prayers they don’t get hurt,” she says. “As long as I know she did the best she could, I am a happy camper.”
Michelle also says that Lauren has always been a late bloomer, largely due to her numerous growth injuries and having ADHD. “[But] emotionally she has found a way to harness all that with her ‘I refuse to quit’ mentality, and that keeps her pushing forward,” Michelle adds. “Like any gymnast who has dealt with adversity, there is always the worry of depression sinking in when they are not getting to do what they are passionate about.” Yet Lauren has always found a way to rebound, gain new skills, and keep pushing herself to the next level.
This spring, Lauren sustained an injury on balance beam that resulted in another challenging recovery process. “I am currently dealing with an avulsion fracture in my hip,” she explains. “That basically means that the tendon pulled off the corner of my hip bone. It has not been easy but I know, like [with] all of my other injuries, I will come back stronger just like I always do. I will be the last one standing. This sport is my life and I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world. They make me who I am today and I am proud of the person I have become. It is because of all the straddling of the beam, face plants, rips, blood, sweat, and tears that I continue to fight.”
Lauren attributes her multiple successful comebacks to her strong mentality and remarkable support system. “My family is always there for me through the ups and downs,” she says. “My coaches are absolutely amazing…The dedication to supporting me from my family, coaches, teammates, teachers and friends is equal to the dedication I have shown time and time again to this sport.”
Gymnastics is far from Lauren’s only passion—she’s also an incredibly gifted artist. “I consider myself a diverse artist,” says Lauren, who believes that all gymnasts are creative. “I can paint, draw, sculpt, and sew. I love it very much with all my heart.”
The study of science is also an important part in her life, as she’s passionate about “creating and analyzing data to learn about genetic diseases and genetic mutations,” she explains. “Knowing that I have a 50% chance of having the genetic mutation of BRCA2 inspires me. [BRCA2 is] a gene that is supposed to fight breast cancer and ovarian cancer, however when it mutated it increases your chance of getting those two cancers and many more.”
This sport is my life and I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.
AS A YOUNG GYMNAST, going elite and making the Olympic team was one of Lauren’s dreams. “But as I got older, I realized I would really just like to compete in college,” she says. “I want to be a part of a team that I can cheer for.”
Michelle says that Lauren’s goal from a very young age was to compete in NCAA gymnastics. “With her latest injury, that dream seems to be out of reach,” says Michelle, who cites the recent trend of early recruiting as a contributing factor to Lauren’s challenge. “Late bloomers like Lauren are going to get lost in the shuffle,” she says. “As her mom, this can be heartbreaking. I still don’t doubt she can accomplish her goal, but it may happen a little differently than she originally thought it would go.”
But Lauren refuses to give up. “She’s determined to try out to be a walk-on for some of her favorite teams,” says Michelle. “Some we will visit on a college tour this summer. Lauren has a certain something (biased mom here) that is ideal for college gymnastics. She lives to compete, loves to show off for judges, loves to encourage her teammates and friends to do their best, and pick them up when they need it emotionally. Lauren has a definite team mentality and always has; she loves making those around her feel good about themselves. The reason college is a great fit for her is because you are always competing against your teammates to earn a spot to compete, and that competitive spirit and the ability to do her best under pressure has always set her on a path to excel.”
Lauren credits many of the life lessons she’s learned to the sport of gymnastics, which she says has taught her discipline, hard work, and the importance of teamwork. “I know all of my groupmates came to me for advice because of how much I have been through,” she admits.
Her mature outlook on life, impressive resume, and unflagging perseverance have all been influenced by gymnastics—the sport she hopes to continue in college. “I don’t know what I would do without this sport,” she says. “I have learned not to cry when I get frustrated but try to work harder, because hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
Nothing has stopped Lauren from continuing her gymnastics career, despite gym changes and long injury recoveries. “Through all of these rough patches I never gave up,” she says. “I like to think of myself as The Little Engine That Could. I am determined to do this sport until I no longer can. Gymnastics has helped me through so many areas of my life, and I just can’t imagine not doing it anymore.”
Gymnastics has helped me through so many areas of my life, and I just can’t imagine not doing it anymore.
Images © Whitney Riney
Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com