My Home Away From Home

Jake Bonnay

Most people move cities when choosing which college to attend to further their academic career. I moved countries.

If you want something bad enough, sometimes you have to move mountains in order to pursue it. Not only was I willing to move mountains for gymnastics, but I was willing to cross the long stretch highway through the United States border to do it.

It isn’t like I had any other option considering the big sports—football, basketball, and hockey—dominate to the point where college gymnastics have died in Canada.

I was left with a life-altering decision: trekking over 1,000 miles to another country or staying put and suffering through a ridiculous commute from school and gymnastics training.

Little did I know my decision would leave my loving mother in tears, but deep down, we both knew the right choice that needed to be made.

Harnessing The Energy

The culmination of that decision stems all the way back to my 18-month-old self getting caught jumping off a six-foot-tall playground my dad built in our backyard.

My parents would often say I had too much energy, and they desperately needed to find an outlet to help me harness it. So they put me in a gym with parent and tot recreational classes.

I flew through every level possible up until I was six years old and even attempted a tumbling class at one point.

It wasn’t until I saw some guys working out on the pommel horse, parallel bars, and high bars that I truly knew what I was meant to be doing.

According to my mom, my eyes lit up like stars as I tugged at her and asked what these athletes were doing.

My parents switched me over to artistic gymnastics after that moment, and I’ve been there ever since.

The love I have for the sport is as strong now as it was back then. I initially saw it as a unique sport from what everybody else was doing.

Other sports like volleyball and basketball were fun, but to me, they felt more like hobbies, rather than a sport I wanted to dedicate all my time in.

I enjoyed the rigorous technical aspects in gymnastics. Complete mastery is impossible, even for the best athletes in the world. There’s always something to work and improve on in the sport.

And that’s what kept me interested.

A Seed Planted

Finding my calling at an early age wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding the means for pursuing it. While I wasn’t particularly interested in the other sports, the vast majority of Canadians saw it differently.

As mentioned above, gymnastics isn’t a popular sport in Canada, and programs were being cut left and right.

But the lack of recognition didn’t kill my dream to pursue competition. My gym was about 45 minutes away from my house, and my mom would drive me to practice, wait for five hours, and then drive me back home because she didn’t want me behind the wheel late at night when I was tired after training.

I wasn’t the only one willing to move mountains to achieve my goals.

My mom was with me every step of the way helping to push past obstacles that would have otherwise impeded the journey.

One of those obstacles was getting me into a college in the United States to pursue both an education and a gymnastics career.

That conversation came about after I returned home from a trip held in Chicago. I was in ninth grade and attended the Windy City Invitational with the Ontario provincial team, when a conversation with another competitor at the event piqued my interest in competing in the NCAA.

That conversation stuck with me throughout high school.

Leaving The Nest

By the time I was a senior, I had settled on choosing a Big Ten school in an effort to stay as close as I could to home. I took trips to Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska. I remember simply being thankful for the opportunity to be offered a trip anywhere at the time.

My experience touring Penn State was fascinating because I really didn’t know what to expect, considering it was the first school on my list.

Then Minnesota came along and raised the bar for me.

There were other Canadian gymnasts on the roster, and the coaches were incredible.

But then Nebraska swept me off my feet.

It seemed to have the best of Penn State and Minnesota together—and then some. The decision seemed like a no-brainer to me.

I remember being in the middle of a physics test when I got the call back.

The teacher I had at the time was usually against phones and being disruptive in class. When he heard my phone go off, he glared at me with the stink eye. I looked back and told him it was a college coach before asking if I could take the call. Perhaps an even bigger surprise than the phone call was my teacher actually excusing me to answer.

That was the day that Nebraska coach Chuck Chmelka told me about the offer, and I ended up committing later that night.

More than anything, I felt a huge relief because it was at least four years of dedication working towards the goal.

It meant everything I had subjected myself to in that time was worth it.

A Journey Well Worth The Sacrifice

The move to the United States took some serious adjustments.

I was obviously making new friends, but it was also hard being so far away from my family and friends back home. Not to mention the new training style, the amount we trained, and all of the school work taking a toll on me.

But nothing has been quite as hard as being away from my mom.

I was never the type of kid in high school to spend every night hanging out with friends and stuff like that. I was either at school, the gym, or at home. Being away from her for such a long period of time was probably the one part of the move I wasn’t ready for.

Yet as time went on, I eventually grew into my new situation, and Nebraska soon became my home away from home.

Then the accomplishments started coming to fruition— 2x NCAA All-American, B1G Vault and Floor Silver Medalist, Second-team All-Big Ten, Nebraska Men’s Gymnastics Most Improved, Nissen Emery Award finalist, and a slew of individual titles. I was even named one of three captains for this year’s team.

As much as these accolades mean to me, one specific accomplishment will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Memory Of A Lifetime

Since the summer of 2018, I’m part of Canada’s national team.

And in 2019, due to a strong showing at the national championships in Canada, I was selected for my first international assignment where I got to represent my home country on the world stage at the FISU Games in Naples, Italy.

As an individual, I qualified for the pommel horse finals. This came as a bit of a surprise as I’d argue pommel horse being my weakest event.

But that obviously didn’t matter at that moment. When the last rotation hit, I nailed the routine that I had been working on for so long.

And when I looked at the scoreboard, my name showed up as #8. I couldn’t believe ranking alongside some of the best gymnasts in the world. It’s hard to describe what meant through my mind in that moment.

To this day, this was one of my proudest accomplishments. I had been craving an opportunity like this my whole life, and finally, all my hard work seemed to have paid off.

After all was said and done, for the first time in my life, I was actually just happy with my performance. Usually, I’m very critical of myself, but in this case, I couldn’t help but smile.

Go Big Red

Unfortunately, just a few months after this phenomenal experience in Italy, things would take a different turn.

My senior season came to an end in late February after a training accident on the vault. I wasn’t in the best headspace that day, I’d say, and ended up slipping, getting lost in the air, and landing with my foot in a really bad angle.

I dislocated it, tore a few ligaments, and got a bad bone bruise.

And that was it.

Of course, my season wasn’t the only one that ended prematurely. A few weeks later, the entire NCAA season was canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

We found out on a Thursday afternoon before leaving on a bus trip for a tri-meet in Minnesota.

There were stories on the news about other states getting shut down, but there wasn’t anything happening in the Midwest.

It was around noon that day when I started to see more stuff online about things in states close to Nebraska. So I gave assistant coach John Robinson a call to see what was going on. He told me to bring my bags to the gym as if we were going to travel, and we’d see what happened. It was about five or 10 minutes after me arriving to the gym when we were informed the NCAA canceled the events for the rest of the year.

It wasn’t as hard for me since my season had already ended, but it was difficult watching everything get taken away from my teammates.

It’s tough when you know how hard those guys worked beside me. Just to see them like that—you just feel helpless.

Even though a couple of teammates and I had season-ending injuries, I believe our team was still competitive enough to compete for a program’s first Big Ten title along with another podium finish at the NCAA Championships, and I would take that belief to my grave.


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