Kalliah McCartney is putting her best foot forward again.
A year after becoming the only gymnast in Sacramento State history to compete in the NCAA championships as a junior in 2014, Vancouver’s McCartney spent the first part of what was supposed to be her senior season competing with pain in her left that eventually shut down her season and required surgery.
Granted a medical redshirt for the 2015 season, McCartney is making the most of her opportunity for a final competition season.
McCartney, a graduate of CAM High School in Battle Ground who trained with Naydenov Gymnastics of Vancouver and Multnomah Athletic Club of Portland, was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s Gymnast of the Year and First Team All-MSPF in each of the sport’s four events as well as in the all-around.
“It’s been a very long journey, it seems like, but then really fast at the same time, too,” McCartney said. “It’s hard to believe that the season’s basically almost over. Obviously, last year was disappointing for me. I was frustrated.”
Frustrating not to finish out her career on schedule with the program’s three other seniors — including her lifelong friends Dallas Smith of Heisson and Kayla Wonderly of La Center — but with a light at the end of the tunnel.
Kalliah McCartney has been to NCAA regionals three times and nationals once during her Sacramento State career — but she has never had an experience like this.
The Sacramento State senior from Vancouver will compete in the Salt Lake City Regional on Saturday at the University of Utah, a hotbed of the sport where Utes fans pack the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center to lead NCAA gymnastics in attendance. More seats are available at the arena for men’s basketball games, and those Utes reached the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA tournament.
“Honestly, I’m really excited for this regional because I’ve never competed at University of Utah and their gym is crazy loud,” McCartney said. “I’ve never competed in that kind of arena or environment before. I’m really excited for that — a little nervous, but mostly excited.”
* A 2015 New York Times story about Utah gymnastics and its fans: http://tinyurl.com/mpf2q4o
That tunnel now leads to McCartney’s fourth appearance at NCAA regionals. McCartney, who broke her own all-around school record with her 39.450 total score at the MPSF Championships held March 19 at the Hornets’ gym, The Nest, will compete as an individual in all-around for the Salt Lake City Regional at the University of Utah on Saturday.
At the MPSF meet, McCartney won the vault with a score of 9.900, tied for the title on balance beam (9.850) and tied for second in floor exercise (9.900) and uneven parallel bars (9.800).
The road back
When told following surgery to repair the navicular bone in her left foot that she would be able to return to competition once it was healed, rehabilitation began.
“It took a little bit longer than I thought the recovery would be,” McCartney said. “I thought, ‘Once I’m walking, I’ll be good to go and start running.’ I started running and there was still some pain.”
Assured by her physical therapist that her recovery was progressing, McCartney continued her return to form in stages until being fully cleared in October.
“My PT person said, ‘You’re going to have good days and bad days, but know that your foot’s healed. It’s not broken anymore.’ Once I was able to run and jump and everything was fine, I was able to practice again. The pain was pretty much gone. Again, there were good days and bad days. If I did a little too much, I definitely felt it and thought, ‘OK, maybe slow down a little bit.’ ”
The process taught McCartney the value of quality over quantity when it comes to training — being satisfied that just a few good repetitions in training mean she has mastered her routines.
“It’s definitely helped grow my patience this year — patience and trust that, ‘You’ll be fine. Just rely on your experience,’ ” she said. “So far this season, it’s nice to compete without any pain after last year. I was just so grateful that the surgery worked out. The pain was fine. The foot didn’t cause me any trouble. This is the year that I’ve been waiting for.”
McCartney’s return to form came in stages, progressing through first bars then beam and floor before vault completed her work. Not by coincidence, that is the order of the four events from least to most need for running.
It was running itself — particularly the vault run-up — that hurt the most before surgery and rehabilitation, not the “punch” off the board in vault or landing dismounts.
“The goal was, of course, to do all-around again, but I was mentally prepared not to do all-around because I wasn’t sure if my foot would be able to hold up on floor and vault,” McCartney said. “Vault is the one that I wasn’t sure I could come back to. That was the one that hurt a lot when I fractured my foot. Sprinting was the last thing to get better.”
In the last few weeks leading up to the team’s “FlipFest” intrasquad event on Dec. 11, McCartney said, the realization hit: “I should be fine. I think I can do this. In all four events, I should be fine.”
Watch and learn
The forced time away from competition gave McCartney a new perspective on her sport.
What she learned, she said, made her a better leader.
“I was never able to fully sit back and watch a college gymnastics meet,” she said. “When I’m competing, I’m pretty focused in my zone, so it was different getting to watch how the other girls interact with each other, how my team looks and if certain girls are more loose than others.
“You can see different expressions. That was most insightful, which I think really helped me for this year being a captain. I can be like, ‘OK, you respond better to a little bit of pushing’ or this girl responds better to more of a nurturing, caring, ‘OK, you’re having a rough day, but we’ll get through it.’ It was definitely a learning experience as a captain and a leader, getting to know the girls a little bit better from sort of an outside perspective.”
Outside of the gym, McCartney graduated last spring with degrees in accounting and international business and plans to pursue a career in accounting. She has been taking additional undergraduate classes this school year to remain eligible to compete.
That opportunity to compete again and have a full senior competition season has been a blessing, McCartney said.
“I’m glad that I did pursue the fifth year, because I knew that I wanted to compete this last time — and I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” she said. “In the gym, my body’s tired and I know that I’m old. My body’s ready to be done, but once I step on that competition floor, that’s home.
“That’s where I want to be, and I’m so glad that my body is able to withstand all of the stress and everything on it over the years.”