GYMASTICS: Each Meet A Celebration For Szmuch

For Orley Szmuch, each chance to compete is almost a celebration. She knows the pain and agony of injury as well as the hard work and sweat it takes to make one more comeback. Because she has endured so many injuries in a gymnastics career that began when she was a grade-schooler, every time she competes in a meet is very special.

"Unfortunately I was plagued by injuries before I got to college so any opportunity to compete has become extremely important," said the University of Florida's diminutive three-time All-American from Los Angeles. "I value it each time because the opportunities to compete have been taken from me a lot. I didn't finish a lot of seasons in club gymnastics before I got here and now that I'm a senior and there are only so many meets left before my career is over, being able to compete means something very special to me."

Szmuch spend seven months in rehab from ankle surgery after last season. Three weeks ago she saw the months of sweat in coming back from that surgery flash before her when she fell during the dismount of a balance beam routine against Auburn. She sprained her ankle and suffered a concussion which forced her to miss the next week's meet against Arkansas. Initially the forecast was that she would miss four to six weeks of competition, but two weeks later (last Friday night against Kentucky) she was back on the parallel bars.

"When we first heard that she would be out four to six weeks, we [the coaches] looked at each other and we almost laughed," said Florida Coach Rhonda Faehn. "If you know Orley and how she has battled back from every injury because competing is just so important to her, then you just knew that she would recover a lot faster than that. There was almost an anger within her that she was injured and that really drove her. Her will to compete probably had a lot to do with the fact she's healed so quickly."

The healing has continued to the point that Faehn will be using Szmuch in at least three events this weekend in two meets of monumental proportions for the sixth-ranked Gators. Friday night, the Gators will be at in a quad meet at third-ranked Utah, joined by California and last year's third-place finisher in the NCAA, Stanford. The Gators will have Saturday off before facing fourth-ranked UCLA Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.

"The Auburn meet was like a big wakeup call for me," said Szmuch. "At first I was bitter because I was so disappointed with another injury and the possibility that I was letting my team down by not being able to compete. Then I watched the tape and talked to people who were there up close to see what happened, and I realized how close I was to something really serious. I must have had an angel by my side or something."

The wakeup call and the determination to get back into the lineup where she could help her teammates in their quest for a national championship got Szmuch motivated to do everything she could to recover quickly from the injury. She sat out the Arkansas meet, but came back to hit a 9.90 and win the bars against Kentucky last Friday night.

She knows she will have to carry her share of the load in the two meets this weekend when the Gators get a chance to size themselves up against two more of the nation's best teams. Florida has already knocked off Alabama and Georgia, two of the nation's perennial powers, plus they scored a win over Nebraska which features Richelle Simpson, a former NCAA All-Around champion.

"We have worked really had and we have the talent and ability so a national championship is finally attainable for us," she said. "Last year the goal was to make the Super Six and we were happy with that, but this year the goal is to be number one.

"This weekend we're definitely going to be seeing some different competition and we're going to be competing against different conferences so that will give us a new experience that can really tell us where we are and where we have to be in just a few weeks. Those are the people that we will see on the floor this weekend that we will have to be better than when we get to nationals, so if we can do what we need to do which is not focus on them but focus on what we have to do and get our job done, it will be very helpful getting us ready for the SECs in three weeks."

The SEC meet in three weeks in Duluth, Georgia will be followed by the NCAA regionals at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center and then a week later by the NCAA championships at Auburn. It is the realization that these big meets are so close that drives Szmuch these days.

"I'm a senior and every meet is big for me," she said. "I just focus in on what I have to do to help the team before each meet, but when it's over, I think that's another one that's over with and there are only so many more to go before the four years is over."

While she is happy that she spent her four years at Florida, she's amazed at how quickly the time has passed and says that she would really like to finish her college career with a championship.

"It feels like only yesterday that I was a freshman," she said. "Now it's my fourth year and I'm almost done with it so it's pretty hard to believe it went by this fast. I try not to think about it being almost the end because to think that I'm nearly done would be too overwhelming, so I just focus on our team goal which is to win the national championship.

"We're getting there as a team and we're really starting to come together, starting to compete as we know we really can. To know that we've beaten some of the best teams in the country like Georgia and Nebraska and yet we haven't even come close to our potential definitely raises the bar of our own expectations."

Once she hangs up the leotard for the Gators there will be one more competition and that will mark the end of her career as a competitive gymnast. She will be representing the US in the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer. That will be an emotional experience as well since her father ran the marathon for the US in the 1989 Maccabiah Games.

"It's not just the games and the competition that makes it special," she said. "Getting to represent the United States means a lot to me, but it is also really meaningful to be able to see the country. You spend a couple of weeks competing but then last week you spend seeing the country of Israel. Just to know that any place you stand, so much history has taken place is almost overwhelming. So much of everything we believe and so much of what shapes our values all started there, so this is one experience that I want to just soak up everything and remember it for the rest of my life."

She's also proof that once a gym rat, always a gym rat. If the opportunity to coach is offered, she'll be ready to take it.

"There are those days when we come to practice when we're tired and we come to practice on the days when we've been up all night studying for exams and we know that day is going to be really tough," she said. "But then we start thinking if I can make it through a day like today, who knows what I can get do on a competition day. If I could coach and help someone else learn that, I'd really want to get the chance, and I'd love to do some motivational speaking to talk to young gymnasts and tell them that all the sacrifice and hard work pays off in ways they can't even imagine now. I hope there's someone out there who will give me a chance to do that."

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