Jan. 13, 2013
By Herb Benenson
Not many student-athletes can say, at the ripe old age of 22, that they've had to come out of retirement just to complete their collegiate career. It's a path gymnast Carol Chang never expected to follow.
Three surgeries to an uncooperative left knee before the end of her sophomore season in Berkeley initially convinced Chang to give up the sport. But the lure of the gym proved too great a force, and now the fourth-year senior has evolved into a key contributor to the Golden Bears' success.
Rising through the ranks from elementary through high school at Airborne Gymnastics out of Santa Clara, Chang earned the attention of college recruiters and was considering a long list of schools to pursue her academic and gymnastics careers. In March of her junior year in high school, she was all prepared to commit to Cal when her knee suddenly gave out and required surgery for a torn ACL and meniscus. The timing couldn't have been worse.
"I was pretty upset because I thought no colleges are going to want me," Chang said.
Undeterred, Chang set out to earn a collegiate spot and worked hard in the gym and in the training room throughout her senior year to be able to compete again. Although no scholarship awaited her in the end, she did secure a place on the Golden Bear roster as a walk-on, and Chang was more than happy to be able to join new teammates in Berkeley.
But soon after, Chang reinjured her knee and again underwent a procedure to repair a torn ACL and meniscus. The long months of rehab, a schedule she knew all too well, meant she would not be able to compete as a college freshman in 2010.
All seemed to be progressing nicely into the fall, and with her routines rounding back into shape, Chang appeared on track to be able to make her Golden Bear debut for the 2011 season. Then just one month before the campaign, she tore her meniscus for the third time.
"I was going to stick around and just help out," Chang said. "But I decided to quit the team because I figured it was a sign I should probably stop and do something else."
Something else did not mean leaving Cal gymnastics altogether. Instead, Chang, a biology major who aspires to become an orthopedic surgeon, used the opportunity to get a first-hand look at sports medicine as a student athletic trainer for the team.
"I was still in the gym every day, but I was playing a different role," Chang said.
To acquire her sports medicine internship, Chang submitted her application for the position along with the several hundred other candidates who seek the coveted jobs each year. With her background in sports and academics, Chang more than met the criteria and got to spend the spring of '11 helping the gymnastics squad in numerous ways, from supervising rehab exercises to helping with ultrasound and ice to taping ankles.
Chang also had the chance to observe the physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers and other medical professionals that work in the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance as they treated their patients. Along the way, she picked up valuable tips that will serve her later in her chosen field.
"She's got a great personality for helping people because she's very warm and inviting," said Ryan Cobb, Cal's head athletic trainer. "She doesn't put up a lot of pretense or a lot of walls. She's just a friendly person, and that goes a long way. Carol has a personality that helps you feel better because she's there. That's a big part of healthcare, having a patient feel better and feel like you're invested in them. She understood the patients she was dealing with."
Yet just being close to the team was not enough for Chang. After Danna Durante came in as Cal's new coach in May 2011, she and Chang struck up a conversation. The point wasn't to ask to return to the team, but rather Chang wanted to introduce herself as the team's sports medicine intern.
As the two continued to chat, the talk turned to Chang's previous life as a competitive gymnast, and Chang expressed the desire to "mess around a little bit" in the practice gym.
Not long after and with the OK from the Cal trainers, Chang's messing around turned into a full-out desire to earn a position back on the squad. She began to rehearse some of her old routines and picked up the pace with her own rehabilitation efforts.
"After eight months off, it was pretty tough, especially for being the third time coming back and the fact I hadn't really planned on it," Chang said. "It was pretty hard to get my skills back."
With a newfound enthusiasm, Chang tackled her challenges head on and by the start of the 2012 campaign last January, she had earned the right to have her name written in the lineup for the balance beam and uneven parallel bars events. In the opener vs. Sacramento State, Chang scored 9.325 on bars and 9.450 on beam. The scores themselves didn't matter nearly as much as the fact that she could finally call herself a collegiate athlete.
"I can't even describe the feeling," Chang said of her emotions heading into that first meet. "I was so excited just to show what I had been working hard for all my life."
Chang soon scored a high of 9.750 on bars in back-to-back meets vs. UC Davis, helping the Bears to a pair of wins, and tallied a best of 9.750 on beam in the regular-season finale vs. Washington.
`I haven't been in collegiate coaching very long but I have been on the club side for a long time," said current head coach Justin Howell, who took over for Durante over the summer. "I haven't seen anybody come back from multiple surgeries, let alone retiring, and coming back. Not only coming back, but coming back strong and adding events to what she was competing from before."
If anyone should know Chang's capabilities, it is Howell. Not only did he serve as Chang's club coach at Airborne Gymnastics for nearly a decade, but he was an assistant for the Bears last year before being elevated into the head position.
With Chang now preparing for her second - and final - season as a collegiate gymnast before she graduates in the spring, Howell fully anticipates her being a valuable team member again on bars and beam, with the goal of adding floor exercise to her routine.
"Compared to where she was last year, she's a long stronger," Howell said. "Just to have fought through all these difference surgeries and come back to the gym is an amazing confidence builder for her. Whether she competes on floor or not, going through the process of getting those skills back and at the end saying, `Wow, I did it,' I think that's a pretty impressive accomplishment."
Before the 2013 season gets underway, Chang can add another "I did it" moment. Based on results last year, her positive attitude, her perseverance and her prospects for this coming campaign, Howell rewarded his senior with an athletic scholarship.
Now that's an achievement worthy of a return from retirement.