By Amanda Wijangco
Illinois Gymnastics’ Sarah Lyons thought her gymnastics career was over at the end of the 2017 season, but in the 12 months since, she’s gone from athlete to team manager and back again. All of it to answer the call when her team needed her most.
Photos by Amanda Wijangco
Sarah Lyons had been here before: swinging giants on these uneven bars, sporting an orange and blue leotard. Despite the familiarity, this was a new beginning for the University of Illinois gymnast, one she didn’t quite expect.
When her feet hit the blue mat as she landed her double layout dismount off the uneven bars, Lyons made her official competitive debut of the 2018 season on February 9. Her teammates were jumping and screaming, some even in tears, as the Illini graduate student had officially come out of retirement.
“That moment is probably one of my favorite moments of my career, to have all the love and support I get from my teammates, because they knew what I’d been through, and they knew the story behind it,” Lyons said. “They were more thrilled to see me come back than I was to be out there.”
Being out there on the competition floor is something Lyons thought she was done with in April 2017 after the Fighting Illini ended their season at a home Regional. And though she called retiring from the sport she did for 18 years “a life-changing experience,” Lyons was content ending her gymnastics career after four years at Illinois, even if she did have one more year of eligibility as a result of medically redshirting her freshman year.
“I was at peace with being done,” she said. “I was happy. I had a great career at the time, so I couldn’t have been more thrilled to end my career at Illinois. It was wonderful, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
A few months after Lyons retired from the sport, the Illinois athletic department hired a new women’s gymnastics coaching staff, led by Nadalie Walsh. At this time, Lyons knew she’d still be at Illinois for graduate school the upcoming year.
Lyons wanted to welcome the new coach to campus and the gymnastics program she graduated from, so she sent her an email. After a phone call and meeting in person, they settled on Lyons becoming a team manager.
“I really wanted to stay involved with the sport of gymnastics as a whole, but especially Illinois, because they gave me a great four years,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being on campus and not contributing to the team in some sort of way and not giving back.”
As the Illinois women’s gymnastics team worked through preseason, Walsh realized Lyons had an extra year of eligibility and asked the team manager if she wanted to use it.
“At the time, I had an amazing grad program,” she said. “I had a life outside of gymnastics that I absolutely loved, and I liked what I was doing in the gym, kind of more on the coaching/manager aspect of it. It was a completely different world from the athlete side.”
In addition, Lyons had a “really crazy schedule” as she was a full-time Master’s student, the team manager and a teaching assistant.
“I didn’t know if I could handle being a student-athlete on top of everything I was already doing, and I wanted to make sure I could give 100 percent,” she said.
Things changed for Lyons and the entire Illinois women’s gymnastics team at the end of preseason. After redshirt senior Mary Jane Horth, who Lyons came to Illinois with as a freshman in 2013, suffered an injury that prevented her from competing for the season, the Illini needed to fill a spot in the uneven bars lineup.
“I thought it was my time to step up and help,” said Lyons, who was the Illini’s bars lead-off before retiring last April. “It was really hard to just sit back, knowing I could contribute to the team. The coaches were very upfront with me, and in December, we [decided we] were going to try a comeback.”
Eight months had passed since she had done any gymnastics. She didn’t even play around in the gym like some retired gymnasts do. She wasn’t even doing non-gymnastics workouts consistently. She was actually supposed to have shoulder surgery in December.
Despite all of that, Lyons was ready to compete at the start of February, only two months after she returned to training.
“It was amazing how quickly everything came back,” she said of her gymnastics. “I surprised myself. I think I surprised the coaches a little bit. I don’t think anybody was expecting me to get back to the level I’m at now in the short amount of time that I did.”
In the first unofficial routine of her comeback, she exhibitioned on bars at a home meet versus Iowa, scoring a respectable 9.800. Her first official routine came a week later at Minnesota where she scored a 9.850, her career high. Lyons solidified her spot in the bar lineup after her season debut, competing on the event in every remaining meet, meeting her goal of being a solid competitor for her team.
“I’m here for the team this season,” Lyons said. “I’m a fifth-year. This is not for me. It’s for the girls that have worked so hard, and it’s for the coaches that have put in so much work into us. At the end of the day, it’s to support them.”
“But my biggest goal would be to be the bar routine that they need. To be the teammate that the girls need. To be the athlete and the leader the coaches need me to be. So it’s far beyond my bar routine.”
Now, Lyons is officially done competing ― for good this time, as she has no NCAA eligibility left. The Illini finished in third, just .075 behind Georgia at the Tuscaloosa Regional on April 7, narrowly missing out on qualifying to Nationals and officially ending their 2018 season. After starting the 2018 season ranked outside of the top 25, Illinois finished at No. 19, its highest end-of-the-season ranking since 2015.
“I have been so fortunate to go to the University of Illinois,” she said. “To have the greatest four years of my life and to get to add another year on top of that is amazing. I’m fully at peace with it, but I’m excited for the future and excited for the future of Illinois Gymnastics, even if that doesn’t mean that I will be an athlete that’s a part of it.”