Seconds after Sarah Thompson tore her Achilles tendons back in May of 2019, the Davis native was planning her comeback to the competitive tumbling world.
Last weekend she capped it all off by helping the USA Team take fifth place at the Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
"In the beginning I was just so sad and heart-broken," Thompson said of the injury that was supposed to set her back a full year. "I mean, this is my life. I knew I would miss it so much.
"But now, I'm back."
And she's back as strong as ever.
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'This was my biggest injury ever'
Thompson has been a tumbling star in the making ever since she started in the sport when she was 3. Former tumbling standout-turned-coach Megan Gearhart of Winnebago took her on as student back in 2007. The pair have been climbing the ranks ever since.
Thompson had climbed all the way up to No. 1 in the country in Junior Elite Tumbling in 2019 and was qualified for the World Championships in Tokyo, Japan. But she took off wrong during warm-ups of one of the world qualifiers in May of that year, and her life quickly changed.
"I kept moving up and up, and I just loved it," Thompson said of her surge just before the Achilles injury. "But then it happened. ... At first, I was just devastated. I had worked so hard to get to where I was, and I knew it could all be over. It was scary. Really scary."
Find out what's inside
It didn't take long, however, for Thompson to flip the switch. She went from frustrated and angry to determined to get back, all in one day.
"My name was still on the list for the world championships, so it was tough to handle," the now-senior at Dakota High School said. "But then, just kind of all of the sudden, it turned into motivation."
She made the decision to have surgery, for a faster recovery and a better chance at returning to her old self, and the day after she got home from the hospital, Gearhart had a surprise waiting for her.
"She handled it all so well — so much better than I was handling it," Gearhart said. "She was just so dedicated to getting back, I wanted to help her in any way I could."
So she brought in a stationary bike, and Thompson started working it immediately. Soon, she was peddling and working out, and it wasn't long before they both realized she was going to come out of this in good shape.
"I just knew," Thompson said. "I was going to make it back."
Better than ever
Instead of being out a full year, Thompson battled back and was tumbling again within six months. She was working on her old passes one month later, and was competing again just nine months after the initial setback — an amazing feat in the kind of sport that puts so much pressure on legs and ankles.
"I couldn't believe it," Gearhart said. "Well, I know Sarah, so I could believe it. But she just kept mastering every part of the rehab in a day, and she was on to the next. She wanted it bad."
She quickly climbed the ladder again, and she eventually moved up to the Senior Elite class, going up against all the best in the world.
Thompson fit right in. She rose to as high as No. 2 in the rankings, working her way up one competition at a time. And then COVID-19 hit, throwing another curveball into her plan.
"I get all the way back, and then this," Thompson said of the pandemic that even closed down her practice gym for two months. "But after what I went through (with the Achilles), I could handle anything. ... It didn't take long."
By the time 2021 rolled around, Thompson was ready again, and the tumbling circuit was back on. She placed sixth at the Elite Challenge in Birmingham, Alabama, while dealing with a non-COVID-19 illness. She then took third at the 2021 Winter Classic in Marion, Ohio, and then second at nationals in St. Louis in June, qualifying her for another World Championships — and this time, she would get to attend.
The big stage
Although coaches and parents weren't allowed to make the trip due to restrictions, Thompson packed her bags and spent 13 days in Azerbaijan, returning to the U.S. just last week.
Although she didn't have her best performance, and didn't make the three-person cut for the finals for the USA Team, she soaked up the experience and was still a key cog to the U.S.'s fifth-place finish.
"Wow, it was just so interesting, everything about it," she said. "I didn't perform the way I would have wanted to, but definitely seeing it all, and getting that kind of experience from that perspective, it was just so cool and exciting."
It was Thompson's first time in Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic, which is south of Russia and north of Iran, and is bounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains. And due to COVID-19 restrictions, she was unable to tour much or see what the city of Baku and its surrounding country had to offer.
But she was still able to soak in some of the culture, and it's an experience she won't soon forget.
"More than anything," Thompson said, "it motivated me to want to get back. ... I'm going to take this week off, and then I'm going right back after it. I'm definitely excited to get back to Worlds and see what I can do."
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Rehabbed and ready: Sarah Thompson helps USA gymnastics at Worlds