Former Elite Gymnast Kristal Bodenschatz Returns To Sport At Age 32

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Kristal Bodenschatz is making a comeback. (Amy Sisk for WBUR)
Kristal Bodenschatz is making a comeback. (Amy Sisk for WBUR)

Kristal Bodenschatz sprinted toward the vault at the 2000 national gymnastics championships in St. Louis. She had a lot of eyes on her.

"My parents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins," Bodenschatz recalls.

They cheered from the stands while a panel of USA Gymnastics officials looked on.

"All the head people are sitting there watching you, and you’re right next to them," Bodenschatz says.

She launched off the vault into a flip with a half twist and nailed her landing. And then, she waited.

"We get called to go in the back for awards, and you have to line up," Bodenschatz says. "And every championships, they’d call from last to first. Here, I’m waiting, like, ‘Maybe I got third.’ They call third up, and I’m like, ‘Ooh, maybe I got second.’ I never really knew."

She won gold. After the meet, Bodenschatz met up with her family. All she wanted was a meal. But as they left the arena ...

"People swarmed us — like, we needed, like, bodyguards almost — and, ‘Can we have your autograph?" says Donnie Uzelac, Bodenschatz's brother. "Just hundreds of kids."

"We could barely walk," Bodenschatz says. "You felt like a celebrity. Even my brother — people were asking him for his autograph because he was my brother."

"That’s kind of when it hit home — ‘I think I could see my sister in the Olympics,’ " Uzelac remembers.

Bodenschatz was one of the country’s top gymnasts. But she was too young to compete in the Sydney Games later that summer. She set her sights on the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And she kept winning.


Bodenschatz trained at Parkettes in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a gym with a reputation for being tough.

"They were pushing me really hard," Bodenschatz says. "I think I was becoming a teenager, too, so things weren’t just happening easy like they did before in the past. And I think I just got frustrated with my coaches, and they got frustrated with me."

One day at practice in 2003, Bodenschatz's coaches wanted her to do a double layout in a floor routine — two flips with a straight body, requiring a lot of power. Bodenschatz wasn’t feeling up to it. She didn’t want to end up like other gymnasts who would get injured trying moves that they couldn’t land safely and consistently.

Bodenschatz went back into the locker room. But she says her coach followed and said ...

"... ‘This Olympics is not for you anymore — this is all about me.’ I walked out right then," Bodenschatz says. "I remember calling my mom, saying, ‘I’m done. I quit.’ "

Bodenschatz didn’t stay away long. She started training again. But in January 2004, she missed catching the high bar on a release skill and fell to the mat below. She felt a bone pop out of place, then slide back in.

“I hated gymnastics. I hated everything about it. I just was done with it.”

Kristal Bodenschatz

"You couldn’t even see my foot. It was so big," Bodenschatz says. "So I stayed off of it, my gosh, maybe two weeks — if that. And it was not OK. Still hurt. Still swollen. I could barely walk."

Bodenschatz wasn’t healthy enough to try her most difficult skills at her next big competitions, and she didn’t make the 2004 Olympic team. When the Athens Games came around that August, she didn’t even watch on TV.

"I hated gymnastics," Bodenschatz says. "I hated everything about it. I just was done with it."

Bodenschatz had a full-ride scholarship to compete in college, but after her freshman year, she quit and returned home to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She began coaching at her family’s gym, Uzelac Gymnastics. Years passed. She got married and had three kids.

Revisiting Memories

Last June, at age 32, Bodenschatz drove across the state to visit her old gym, Parkettes, for its 50th anniversary.

"Got to see my friends, and I got to show my husband some of the pictures and videos of when I was younger," Bodenschatz says. "And talking about gymnastics just brought back a lot of memories. Because I don’t ever really talk about my experience as a gymnast, ever."

When she got back to Johnstown, Bodenschatz hopped up on a balance beam in front of the girls she was coaching. And she decided to show off a crazy skill from her competition days: a full-twisting back handspring, landing not on her feet, but catching the beam between her legs. Many people who see it performed for the first time gasp, because it looks terrifying. But she pulled it off.

"But after that, for two weeks, I couldn’t move my shoulder," Bodenschatz laughs.

But Bodenschatz had fun trying it. And this idea began creeping into her head: could she make a comeback?

"Why not? Why not try? It might be really, really hard, but I think this would be the perfect time to try," Bodenschatz remembers thinking. "I started trying to work out at my house, doing conditioning and going outside because it was still nice out and doing handstands and pirouettes and all of that — and maybe convince myself that I could still do it."

Bodenschatz's brother Donnie Uzelac coaches at the family’s gym too.

"My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God. No. She’s crazy,’ " Uzelac recalls. "I went home, talked to my wife about it. I’m like, ‘I don’t know if we have to talk to Kristal. I don’t know if there’s something wrong. But she wants to train again. What if she gets hurt? Her kids? Her husband? She has bills. She’s an adult. She’s crazy.’ "

But Bodenschatz had made up her mind. Uzelac and their mom eventually became her coaches, helping her prepare routines for a sport that’s changed a lot in 15 years.

(Amy Sisk for WBUR)
(Amy Sisk for WBUR)

"It's very powerful," Bodenschatz says. "It’s very, ‘Let’s try the hardest things and put them all together.’ "

Bodenschatz didn’t have any of the right gear to get started — just an old, worn set of leather grips that gymnasts wear over their hands on bars."

"So I got new grips and new leotards. And, really, that’s all you need for gymnastics. Not much more," Bodenschatz says.

The Buckeye Classic

Earlier this year, Bodenschatz entered the Buckeye Classic in Ohio. It was her first elite competition since 2004. Girls from her gym and her family, including her three young children, sat in the stands. Most of her competitors were 12 to 14 years old.

"All the other girls in her rotation were staring at her, like, ‘Oh, my God, who is this lady?’ " Uzelac says.

But one of their coaches knew.

"She’s like, ‘Excuse me, are you Kristal?’ " Uzelac remembers. "She’s like, ‘Yup.’ She's like, ‘The Kristal?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah. I guess if you want to say that, I’m the Kristal.’ She’s like, ‘Do you have anything inspirational to say to my girls?’ And I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she told the girls, you know, have fun, be yourself. And the look on the little girls, like, ‘Oh, my god. I’m competing against this former gymnast who’s amazing.’ "

Bodenschatz started on vault.

"Everyone was clapping for me when I was running down the vault runway and cheering," she says. "I could hear all that, and that was exciting."

She completed her piked flip with a half twist and took just a small step on her landing. Then, she went to her next and final event: balance beam.

“It might be really, really hard, but I think this would be the perfect time to try.”

Kristal Bodenschatz

"I got up on the beam, shaking — like, really shaking," Bodenschatz says.

One of her toughest moves came early in her routine: a back handspring followed by a backflip. She went a touch crooked and fell onto the mat.

"So I get back up and I go to do my next thing," Bodenschatz says. "And I feel very confident."

But as she moved through her choreography, she took a side step and found herself on the floor yet again.

"I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what happened? How did I end up on the ground?’ "

She wobbled the rest of the way through the routine.

"So when I landed, I just burst into tears and walked away," Bodenschatz says.

A New Fulfillment

In the days after the competition,  Bodenschatz's perspective changed. And news of her comeback spread throughout the gymnastics community. One 16-year-old gymnast was thinking about leaving the sport when she read a Facebook post about Bodenschatz's journey.

"She didn’t quit because of my story," Bodenschatz says. "That’s enough. If I have reached these people to want to keep doing stuff, that, to me, is enough."

Since the Buckeye Classic, Bodenschatz has kept working out and competing. Uzelac says he catches a lot of the young gymnasts at the family’s gym staring at his sister, amazed, every time she trains.

"Whenever she’s working out, it’s like, ‘Girls, hello. Girls, come on. Back to practice,’ " he says.

Bodenschatz’s goal is to represent the United States at the Tokyo Games in 2020.  The odds are against her. Over the last five Olympics, the U.S. hasn’t sent any gymnasts older than 26. But her Olympic dream still motivates her.

"Hopefully by next year, I will improve all of these routines so they're up to what everyone is doing," Bodenschatz says. "Right now, yes — I’m not at that point. But I want to get out in front of people just to show them that I can do it."

Kristal Bodenschatz knows her dream may never come true — and she’s OK with that. This journey has become a lot bigger than fulfilling that childhood goal.

"Just finding the love of something again — feeling happy and every day doing something that makes me happy, that makes me smile — is the best part of doing this again," Bodenschatz says.

This segment aired on May 25, 2019.



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