Health issues cut her Rutgers gymnastics career short. Now she inspires teammates as coach
For Jenna Ferguson, being on the mat is as familiar as it gets.
Dressed in leggings and a scarlet red T-shirt, the senior was hard at work at a recent Rutgers University gymnastics practice. She pulled mats around the gym and set up vaults for gymnasts. She watched and cheered the team on, giving them individual pep talks after each routine.
She knew exactly what each gymnast needed, and when.
After all, it wasn’t long ago that Ferguson was a varsity member of this team, too, rotating between her routines on the floor, beam and vault. This year, though, she was forced to retire from gymnastics competition after a series of unfortunate medical ailments — but Ferguson is filling a new role as the team’s latest student assistant coach.
“Honestly, I'm having a really good time,” Ferguson said. “Even though I'm not doing gym, I still get to be around it. I still get to help people.”
Ferguson, 21, retired from competing for the Rutgers gymnastics team ahead of this season, bringing a premature end to her gymnastics career while also finding a new path forward.
It all started after she caught COVID-19 in 2021 and needed to undergo a cardiac MRI before returning to gymnastics. That’s when doctors found a thymoma, a malignant tumor on her thymus gland, that needed to be surgically removed through the sternum.
Ferguson had every intent of returning to gymnastics after the surgery to remove the tumor.
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But she faced more adversity. She suffered multiple bouts with pericarditis, or inflammation of the thin membrane surrounding her heart. This kept her on the sidelines and in the hospital. After a summer of hoping to get back to the mat, she made the hard decision to retire.
“I think why it was so hard last year was because I didn't really have a role. I felt like I wasn't an athlete,” Ferguson said. “So I didn't really know what to do with myself. But this year, I do have a role helping my teammates — trying to coach them, help them be better. If they need support, I can go help and I can give them support in any way they need. I love being that support person."
Being in this role allows Ferguson to remain immersed in gymnastics, which she picked up as a child in her small hometown in Pennsylvania. She competed for the Skyline Shining Stars travel team. In high school, she met Rutgers’ gymnastics head coach Umme Salim-Beasley — a connection that helped her eventually compete at the highest level in college.
“Being a part of the sport as long as I have been, as well as competing at every level, you know what it takes to be a gymnast,” Salim-Beasley said. “You know the commitment, you know the drive, you know the determination, the desire. You have to love the sport, and Jenna definitely did love it.”
Ferguson is still very much part of the Rutgers gymnastics team, Salim-Beasley said. Her determination to get back on the mat — even if in a new role — serves as inspiration for the rest of the team, she said. It gives the team a clear example of what it's like to face adversity in sport, which often is unpredictable.
“I've not seen someone have to face a situation that is as serious, and just have such a positive attitude about it,” Salim-Beasley said. “It's something that the team really looks to Jenna for. She has a very calming presence. The strength she was able to show in handling all of that and coming through it and still just being upbeat and looking forward to her future, it’s something that everyone really appreciates.”
This weekend, the team is hosting a local meet inside Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway. Over the next two months, as the team’s season comes to its end, Ferguson will be preparing for her next chapter: studying to become a doctor of physical therapy at Messiah University in Pennsylvania. She plans on taking everything she learned in gym with her.
"If I didn't have gymnastics, I might be a procrastinator. I might not do work [as] efficiently. I've learned so much just around the sport," Ferguson said. "I also want to take that with me in the future and apply the hard work, the discipline, all of those things. But it also teaches you to keep pushing forward and just to never give up."
At a practice last week, Ferguson rotated working with different gymnasts, helping them with their routines as the team did a run-through of their next meet. When the gymnasts on the beam huddled together — and chanted “B-E-A-M. Let’s go beam!” — Ferguson was by their side.
When you ask Ferguson about gymnastics, she gets emotional. She misses the sport. But now, she says, she's also going to miss coaching.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Medical issues halted Rutgers gymnast's career. Now she coaches