My Journey

Anton Stephenson

It’s hard to shake the memories.

That was the one thing that kept running through my head as I looked around at the faces of my former teammates at a wedding I recently attended.

I hadn’t seen some of the guys for three years, and we picked right back up like nothing had changed.

I guess time really is irrelevant in a sport where teammates feel more like family.

I think about my time on the Nebraska men’s gymnastics team often because it was so meaningful to me. The unbreakable bonds built within the program itself and the life lessons that helped me transition to adulthood—it’s tough not to get nostalgic about that journey.

And it all started with a trip to the 50-yard line at Memorial Stadium. Can you imagine?

Born to be a Husker

I’ll be the first to admit the football stadium visit was more than just a really cool touch during my recruiting trip. There are only a few things in this world that make you feel a part of something bigger than standing in the middle of a stadium that seats 90,000-plus people.

But my mind was already made up.

My brother was a year ahead of me and already into his first year with the Nebraska gymnastics team. So there was already some bias when I first visited the school.

I’ve been following in my brother’s footsteps for as long as I can remember. After all, he’s the main reason I got into the sport in the first place.

I learned at a young age the long-term commitment it took to excel at gymnastics. But honestly, as a kid, I was mainly there for the flips and twists. What kid wouldn’t like the idea of jumping around with the elegance of a ninja?

I just remember watching the older guys and wishing that was me someday.

Fast forward many years later and there I was at the 50-yard line, ready to commit to being a Husker. I hit it off immediately with the team, and I really liked the optimism surrounding the program’s future. I just wanted to be a part of that success. It was captivating!

All three coaches were in attendance when I actually committed, and I remember being filled with this overwhelming sense of family. I’ll never forget the genuine happiness when informing my new teammates that I was going to be a Husker. It was one of my proudest moments.

I knew that sort of comradery was rare the moment I left the campus.

A lifetime’s worth of lessons

My sleep schedule, study habits and diet—everything I did was circling around gymnastics. Learning that sort of discipline and dedication to the sport has stuck with me in my adult life. Even as a medical school student, I can attribute my success to the structure I built through gymnastics. Without a doubt.

I can vividly remember the sudden change in my mentality during my freshman year. It was like someone flipped a switch.

I never really realized my full potential in sports or school prior to that year.
But seeing the effort my teammates put into the gym and classroom changed the way I viewed my own academic and athletic career.

It made me want to push and challenge myself more than ever before.
That determination followed me throughout college and really enabled me to excel in a sport that has literally impacted my life more than anything else.

Every single sacrifice was so worth it and with the support of my teammates, coaches, trainers, and entire university, I was able to enjoy a pretty successful collegiate career. In 2018, my brother, Chris, won the Male Athlete of the Year award and in 2019, I was fortunate to earn the same award. It was a very proud moment to literally follow the footsteps of my brother. In 2019, our team also placed third at the NCAA Championships. It was everything I could have ever wanted from my career. To finally get it in my last year with the team was so fulfilling.

It brings me joy every time I think of that moment.

Today, however, a lot of my thoughts are consumed with fear.

The fear of so many other athletes being robbed of that same experience with gymnastics programs shutting down around the country. It breaks my heart because the sport is already so small.

To think fewer, or maybe even no gymnast, is going to have that same opportunity in the future is really disheartening.

Stronger together

The gymnastics community might be small in scope, but there’s also a strength there that’s indescribable.

Even if we are opponents, everyone realizes the ultimate fight is keeping the sport alive and increasing its popularity. We’re all in love with the same thing at the end of the day. That’s why you’ll see situations where even your biggest rivals come up and compliment you after a meet.

It’s just a tad different, you know? We’re all in this together.

I feel like some people don’t recognize the prominence gymnastics once had in colleges across the country. The diminishing popularity often leads to some dismissing the sport’s existence entirely. It simply boils down to the fact that some don’t even recognize there are schools with teams.

Getting that information out there and putting a spotlight on the schools that still have programs is a good start for the long-term progression of the sport.

That could mean some meeting halfway on our part. I can’t even tell you the number of times my friends outside of the sport said they didn’t understand the rules. Imagine being a fan of a sport when you don’t understand what’s going on.

It’s never going to happen.

I’d love to see college gymnastics come to a point where it might even consider changing the format and making it geared more towards the audience. It’s worth it to save the sport.

It shakes up our entire community every time a team is dropped. That fear is prevalent for so many programs across the country right now with the Coronavirus pandemic leaving its mark on college sports everywhere.

Unfortunately, not too many schools actively invest in their gymnastics programs. Just another reason why I’m so proud of seeing my alma mater go through with building a new gymnastics facility recently. This type of support means the world to the athletes, coaches, and us alumni.

In general, I feel like Nebraska always does a great job of holding onto its alumni, and many of them have stepped up to the plate in a collaborative effort to contribute to the cause.

My hope is that other schools and programs take note of Nebraska’s investment in gymnastics and follow suit. Our community deserves and, honestly, needs people to step up during these challenging times.

If you want to help, follow the College Gymnastics Association (CGA) on Instagram and check their updates and calls-to-action.

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