Bouncing Back: Stephens still aims high - Part 1

Attending an American University is a dream for most professional gymnasts. Being able to be part of the NCAA college circuit whilst competing against the best is something many aim for but don’t often get to experience. But for Australian Elite Gymnast Clay Stephens, his time at the University of Illinois has been far from smooth. 

Currently undergoing extensive rehab after sustaining a serious knee injury during the 2020 World Cup in Melbourne, an injury that has tested Stephens beyond anything he could have expected. 

The awkward landing in competition resulted in damage to not only his Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) and meniscus but also his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), his third major knee injury in as many years.

Speaking about the incident, Stephens said that the experience has given him a new appreciation for organisations that make it their mission to support individuals and their mental health.

“I have grown and matured as a person as well as an athlete and I have slowly become more and more aware of the importance on mental stability and reflection,” Stephens said. 

“Any kind of organisation or initiative that has a central goal and purpose of exposing prevalent issues to increase awareness, treatment, and to address stigmas that surround issues such as mental health is so important.

“Creating a community around yourself where you feel comfortable to express how you are feeling, both good and bad, is essential to allow you as an individual to thrive.” 

Now three months post-surgery, the energetic 23-year-old admits that this time around has been the most difficult, the last six months have been the most challenging in his life, both professionally and personally. 

“The knee is good,” Stephens said.

“It ended up being that I had to have a two part surgery because I tore the MCL. So I had to have the MCL and meniscus repaired, and then the second surgery was scheduled six weeks after that; but that’s when COVID hit.” 

Throwing any preconceived recovery plans out the window, Stephens had to wait an extra two months for the ACL to be repaired, sending the usually up-beat personality into both a physical and metal struggle.

“It was another problem to add to the list. I was just hobbling around on crutches and I tell you what, crutches get boring after ten minutes let alone an extra two months. 

“My knee started feeling really good, then it got worse again after they went back and operated the second time, so it was this roller-coaster of emotional and physical wellness. That was really taxing.

“Full disclosure, I went through basically the worst time of my life after this knee. 

“I was in a place where I was really unhappy. I couldn’t do what I loved, I wasn’t physically able to do anything, I couldn’t walk, mentally I felt trapped and socially I couldn’t see anyone because of being in quarantine.

“I was marinading in my own thoughts alone in my house. So there was a decent length of time that I was done with gymnastics. It was sad and a relief at the same time. In the mix of that decision, the Olympics was postponed.” 

Like many professional athletes, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games was initially hard for Stephens to process, until he recognised that it could provide him with an opportunity. 

Unlike others who had their dreams dashed, the extra time allowed Stephens, who had all but called time on his career, the chance to put his name back on the list of hopefuls with qualification opportunities still available.

“After five surgeries on my knees, I still wanted to achieve my goals. But I didn’t know if I was willing to go through what it takes to get there. 

“I spent a long time thinking, talking to people here, my coach Dan Ribeiro. He helped me a lot, not only through my gymnastics goals but with evaluating things and my mental health.

“For me it was deciding to use gymnastics to help get my knee healthy. As I started doing more, I started to feel better. Physically and mentally, the more I did I began to enjoy doing more. 

“But after all the consideration, its only been in the last month I’ve decided that this is what is happening. I’m aiming to qualify for the Olympic Games.” 

Resilience and perseverance are two traits that are a necessity for any professional athlete and Stephens has both in spades. 

In Part 2 of our chat with Stephens, he talks more what is driving his ambition towards Tokyo 2021.