kristal bodenschatz stands tall on the balance beam before launching into a front tuck.
Two of her children jump from mat to mat, unaware of the potential danger if they get too close and she falls.
bodenschatz hits his flip, then looks up at his 2-year-old who smiles at him from below.
“You have to sit down,” she tells him.
Her family’s gym, uzelac gymnastics in johnstown, is a big empty playground this morning for her younger children.
“Usually that’s how I train, with my kids in tow,” he said.
for bodenschatz herself, training here is a second chance to fulfill a childhood dream.
many gymnasts peak in their teens or early 20s and then retire. Bodenschatz was no exception, until last summer when she decided to put on a leotard and improve her grip again at age 32.
most members of the us. uu. The women’s national team was not even born when it won its first national championship as a junior in 1999. However, it shares a goal with many of them: to reach the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
earning a spot will be difficult because the united states has so much depth.
“At this point, I can’t say I agree with them,” Bodenschatz said. “I’m still trying to get off my nerves and get back to racing.”
a contender for the 2004 Olympics
Bodenschatz grew up a self-described gym rat, always at the Johnstown gym where his mother worked.
brenda uzelac knew her daughter could benefit from training at parkettes across the state, a facility with a history of producing some of the best gymnasts in the country.
“i came home one day and told my husband i was moving to allentown,” uzelac recalled. “He absolutely thought he was crazy because we’re a small town and nobody leaves the area, usually.”
She and her daughter, then 8 years old, took the first step. the rest of the family joined them in allentown a year later.
bodenschatz progressed very quickly on parkettes.
his brother donnie uzelac remembered the day he won his first national title.
“We’re walking down the street and the kids are crowding,” he said. “I felt like a bodyguard.”
The family managed to find some peace as they sat down to eat, only to receive more autograph requests by the time they got up to leave.
“i’m like, ‘oh my god, my sister is famous,'” donnie uzelac said. “she’s going to be an olympic athlete.”
bodenschatz won national championships the next two years, but then came a series of disappointments.
Her coaches pushed hard to get to the games, and she said that’s what ultimately led her to quit the parkettes the year before the event, feeling burned out. She eventually came back, only to dislocate her ankle performing a release move on the bars in January 2004. She didn’t even watch the Olympics on TV later that year.
I still had a full gym scholarship to penn state university.
“My heart was broken and I wasn’t ready to go on,” she said.
An unlucky landing on a flip pass in practice sealed his fate. bodenschatz twisted in the foam pit at the gym and hit his head on the side of the concrete.
with a severe concussion, he felt bad just trying to read. She dropped out of college to return to her home in Johnstown, where she has since been a trainer at her family’s gym.
That’s where he started training again last summer, with that Olympic dream still in mind.
“Coming back to sports was a big deal because I really hated gymnastics,” Bodenschatz said. “Finding love again is just amazing. it’s fun. I feel like a kid again.”
“I can do it now”
bodenschatz’s brother and mother weren’t sure what to think when he floated the idea of a comeback last August, but the idea made them nervous.
“We thought, we’re going to be the trainers and if she gets hurt, it’s our fault,” Brenda Uzelac said.
Bodenschatz hadn’t used his core muscles in years, plus they had his appendix removed and had a C-section. so he spent a lot of time conditioning to get his body back in shape. The ankles, knees and back of him still receive blows.
“They hurt and they’re sore, but I don’t push them to the max where I know I’m going to get hurt,” he said. “That’s the big difference. now I hear myself. I know when to stop and I know when to push.”
The timing, he said, seems right.
“I’m married and we have three wonderful kids, and I’m at that point now where I’m like, wow, I miss doing things, I miss freaking out,” she said. “I can do it now.”
bodenschatz is trying to bring back and even improve on the skills that earned him gold all those years ago.
Gymnastics has changed a lot since then, with a new scoring system and athletes like Simone Biles throwing difficult skills that no one attempted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I feel like back then you had to be slim and artistic,” Bodenschatz said. “Nowadays, it’s all about power.”
a big test came in their first meeting earlier this year in ohio.
competed after only six months in the gym.
“I was prepared, but never in my life was I nervous in a meeting until this one,” she said.
The vault went well, but he fell on the beam twice and didn’t get the score he needs to qualify for the usa. uu. classic this summer.
us classic would be her first major national competition in 15 years, and an important step on the road to tokyo to prove she can be a contender. will have another opportunity at an upcoming meeting in June.
if you can’t, that’s fine with that. simply competing again, she said, is an achievement.
“Doing those other things is just icing on the cake,” he said.
Throughout his comeback, he has been inspired by the word “believe”. It’s written in rhinestones on a leotard he wears often, and he’s selling matching ones to fund his competition trips.
resonates with the young girls at the gym who watch his afternoon training sessions.
“The most important part of this whole experience for me is empowering girls to never give up,” said donnie uzelac.
You are seeing bodenschatz believe in herself and find joy in this sport once again.