(Nov. 23, 2018) After years of training 40 hours a week, being homeschooled and nearly losing it all as a result of a severe back injury, local gymnast Serena Michnick signed her National Letter of Intent to compete for the Fairmont State University Acrobatics & Tumbling team at the gym where it all began, Wednesday, Nov. 14.
Michnick, 17, of Bishopville, started gymnastics when she was 4 years old, not because she wanted to, but because her parents thought it would be a great way for the toddler to burn off some excess energy.
“My parents put me in it because I was a monkey as per usual, and energetic,” Michnick said. “I went in when I was 4 years old and I loved it.”
Michnick began her gymnastics career at Twisters Gymnastics in Berlin. She won numerous state awards as she quickly worked her way up from a level 1 to a level 10 gymnast.
“You start at one which has your basic levels and slowly you move up to level 10, which has very hard skills similar to what they do in the Olympics, [though] they do even more insane skills than level 10,” Michnick said. “[Level 10 is] the step before elite, before the Olympics.”
Michnick’s training of 36-40 hours a week made it difficult to maintain a full class schedule – not including the hours driving back and forth over the Chesapeake Bay bridge – so, the young athlete decided to be homeschooled when she was in the sixth grade.
“I’d wake up at 6 in the morning, go to school and get out early because I had the excuse for gymnastics, at 2:30 p.m.,” Michnick said. “My mom would drive me two to two and a half hours over the Bay Bridge to Annapolis. I would go to practice from 5-9 p.m., I’d brush my teeth and get into my pajamas, head back into the car and my mom would drive me all the way back home at midnight and start it all over again the next morning.
“Once my gymnastics got very serious, I decided to homeschool to put more hours into the gym and actually homeschool in the gym or by coffee shop instead of going to school 7 [a.m.] to 3 p.m.],” she continued.
Michnick’s mother, Deanne, is proud of her daughter’s drive and dedication to the sport.
“As her skills got harder and harder, we went to a couple other coaches to get her advance training over the bridge for years and years,” Deanne said. “Sometimes she homeschooled at the gym, which is what gymnasts in advanced training generally do because they train so much it’s hard to go to school. Her team would train three hours in the morning, eat lunch, study in the middle of the day, then go back to training.”
Michnick spent the last three years training to meet her goal of becoming a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gymnast.
However, tragedy struck this summer, when back pain she had dealt with over the years became so intense she needed an MRI and CAT scan to determine the cause.
“I had back pain a couple years ago. Nothing caused it [officially], it just over time, my back started to give out,” Michnick said. “And a couple years past and I was in an extreme amount of pain. I went and got an MRI and CAT scan and the doctors said I had a bulged disc in my L-3, which is your lower back.
“It was really inflamed and bad to the point that they say, ‘You can’t keep tumbling on it, you can’t keep doing gymnastics on it, because if you do hurt yourself again, it could potentially be very threatening,’” she continued.
This was a heartbreaking blow for Michnick, who had to inform several coaches who were recruiting her from various universities that she was retiring as a result of her injury.
However, Michnick decided to find an alternate solution to retirement, and went back to the doctors to seek advice.
“They said that I was doing very hard skills, lots of twisting, lots of uncertainty when I landed, so I went back to the doctor and they said, ‘You can keep doing skills but you can’t do them to the extreme amount you were doing it at,’” Michnick said. “That’s when I found acro-tumbling, which is not like gymnastics. They’re easier skills but the skills you do need to be perfect and I fell in love with that too.”
Acrobatics and tumbling is a fast-paced sport similar to gymnastics but less stressful on the body and joints. Competitors participate in six events during meets – compulsory, acrobatics, pyramids, toss, tumbling and team.
Her mother is relieved that despite ending her career in gymnastics, Michnick will still be able to perform something she loves.
“I am excited for her,” Deanne said. “To have all of her years of training actually pay off [for] her [to accomplish her] dream and we thought it was over, I thought it was an incredible testament to her really believing in something. Sometimes a door closes but another one opens when you least expect it.”
Michnick’s Twisters coach, Carmella Solito, who trained the athlete since her introduction to the sport at 4 years old, also shared the excitement for her new opportunities.
“I’m very, very happy for her family and I’m really happy she could find success in the sport because it really is such a great sport,” Solito said. “Gymnastics is something, especially if you do it for a long time, [which is] one of those things that will always be a part of you in some way.”
Numerous universities immediately started recruiting Michnick again after word got out she decided to compete in acrobatics and tumbling.
Last Wednesday, surrounded by her family and Solito, Michnick signed with Fairmont State University, located in Fairmont, West Virginia, for its Acrobatics & Tumbling team. The university is currently ranked sixth in the nation for the sport.
“I’ve [visited] a couple universities all over the states, and first come first, was location. I didn’t want to be too far away from my family, just because I’ve always been very close to them,” Michnick said. “Then, there were the actual school aspects, what I wanted to go into majoring, what school was best for me for majoring and what I wanted to do.”
Michnick plans on majoring in physical therapy, which helped her regain her form and return to the sport she loved, she said. Michnick is excited to go to Fairmont in the fall of 2019.
“I’ve been homeschooled for so long. I’m excited to actually get to go to classes and gain more friends,” Michnick said. “I think the team will be more like a family over the next four years and I’m excited for the next part of my life.”