My life has revolved around one thing for as long as I can remember. Gymnastics. I started taking classes when I was four years old, and for most of my life, I didn't think anything would ever make me as happy as flipping around.
I was wrong. In 2011, nearing the end of my grad school career, an opportunity was presented to me. I had just finished my first year as an assistant coach here at Whitewater, and was offered the chance to start a youth gymnastics program out of our facility. My coaching position wasn't full time, and the money was very little, and this was a way to supplement my income, and give me the opportunity to run my own gym. I chose to go for it, solidifying my position as an assistant coach for the team I loved so dearly, and beginning my adventure as an entrepreneur.
That summer, while working our summer camp, and getting ready to open the doors to my new gymnastics club, "GymHawks," I made a new buddy. Because I was in charge of the dorms, I had a room with air conditioning (perks of being in management), and this scrawny little 9 year old found her way into my room every single night. She chatted my ear off, talking about everything and anything. I couldn't tell if she was homesick or if she just liked sitting in the air conditioning… either way, I got to know Avery really well that summer. What I didn't find out about her then, was that in the top drawer of her desk, in her very hot, dorm room, Avery had a bible tucked away… which blew my mind, because I had never seen a nine year old carry a bible around, particularly at a sports camp.
I got to know Avery much better in the fall, as she was one of about 20 kids who joined my club that first session. Avery was in a class by herself, just she and I, and that girl LOVED to talk. She also loved gymnastics… so we got along very well. She and I were a lot alike. She was definitely a perfectionist, and a little hard on herself… but that girl loved the Warhawks. We spent so much time talking about all of the college girls and in a way, they became like her big sisters. They did for a lot of girls, actually. That was a part of the wonder for me… seeing these little girls look up to their gymnastics idols and interact with them and be encouraged by them was so amazing, and it still is.
Over the next year and a half, my program grew and the Warhawks got stronger. They won their first ever Division-III National Championship in 2012, and I could not have been more proud. In the fall, two of my athletes had become good enough to compete against other clubs. Avery had just moved up to the level below the competitive team, and she was so excited, and ready to work hard to compete the next year. By that point, several of my collegiate athletes had coached Avery and everyone had fallen in love with her. There was just something about Avery… no one could pinpoint exactly what it was… but there was something about her that was really special.
We didn't figure out what made her so special until that October… after she died. She was leaving gymnastics on a Wednesday night when she died in a car accident. When I found out about the accident the next day, there was no name attached to the article, they simply printed that an 11 year old Delavan girl died on hwy 89 in a single car crash. I knew in that instant that it was Avery. I can't tell you how I knew, but it was an instant realization.
I was 26 years old at the time. And I found myself with over 100 children and 20 young adults that I had to explain this situation to, and I can tell you that at 26 I felt like I was 8. I couldn't explain it, I couldn't wish it away, or take anyone's pain away… I just felt like I was not old enough or mature enough to be the adult in the situation. And then I learned who Avery really was.
Avery Johanna was an 11 year old, Bible toting, Jesus loving, Jamie Grace singing, Christian who baked cookies on a regular basis and left them anonymously on people's doorsteps. She convinced her mom to take her to Winter Jam, and then convinced her to sponsor a child from a third world country because, "Who else would?" Avery spent hours in the front yard or at the park trying to help kids perfect their cartwheels and their handstands. She started a Bible study at school even though she was terrified no one would show up.
She was brave, and the more I learned about Avery, the more I wanted to be like her. I was raised in the Catholic Church. We went to church every week, without fail, as we were growing up. We went to CCD and youth group in high school. I always prayed, but all my life, those prayers always sounded a lot like letters to God… not necessarily a conversation. It wasn't until I learned more about Avery and her faith that I really developed a relationship with God. I had always believed he was there… no question about it… but this was different.
On the last day of her life, Avery and her Mom were "rocking out" to Jamie Grace's song "God Girl" on their way to school. When she got out of the car, she turned to her mom and she said, "You know mom, I really am a God Girl." And she was.
A couple of months after she passed away, her mom found a letter that Avery had written to the little girl they had "adopted" from that impoverished nation. The letter was addressed to Alphonsine and in that letter Avery asked Alphonsine if she new Jesus… because if she didn't, she would like to tell her about him. And then, she inscribed the words of Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the lord, the maker of Heaven and Earth."
When this all happened last year, we had to do a lot of healing as a family in that gym. We dedicated our first home meet of the season to Avery and had t-shirts made in her honor. The girls ended up smashing the school record that meet, and then went on to win their second consecutive national championship at home. And there was no doubt in my mind that Avery was there with them.
We started a scholarship fund in Avery's name at GymHawks, and I've seen kids give back to their communities, write essays about helping others, and design new "Averyday t-shirts" in order to contribute to that scholarship fund. Avery's mom started a youth ministry in her name, so that she can continue to help kids to make the world a better place while sharing the Gospel. And Jamie Grace, named a song on her new album "Avery's Song" in memory of our sweet girl.
Recently, we had another set of struggles. Two weeks before the national championships, one of our athlete's lost a younger brother, and 24 hours later, another gymnast lost her father. Our team was devastated by the losses of their teammates families. They stood by one another with such strength. They drove up to five hours one way to attend the funerals, missing school and work. They comforted each other, cried together and prayed together. They rejoiced when they were all reunited after a week of missing their teammates who were mourning. And then they went to New York. No one would have blamed them if they fell apart. They had barely been able to start healing after these two tragedies and yet they seemed so strong together. I don't know what the prayer was that day… you can ask Hannah what she said before they all marched out to compete that day… but there was no one who could have beaten them last Friday. They 3-peated as National Champions, and seeing that, knowing they had come together, prayed together and risen above all the adversity they had been dealt, was an extremely proud moment for me.