TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Before you read on, take a moment to check out the things junior Ari Guerra has done with the University of Alabama gymnastics team — the videos scattered throughout this story are a good start.
The amazing part of her story isn’t necessarily what she has done: be it a powerful pass on the floor exercise, a spinning dismount on the uneven parallel bars or even her now-trademark vault which, for reasons that will become apparent, is like no one else’s in college.
As a top competitor she could be the subject a physics lecture in any of her events; a real-life demonstration of acceleration, torque and energy all balled up in to one.
But if that doesn’t make your jaw drop, this will: She’s doing it with four screws in her back.
Go ahead and watch her again, because it really is that impressive.
“Resilient would be the word,” coach Dana Duckworth said in describing the junior from Texas. “I’ve never seen anyone so resilient.
“I love to watch her compete.”
— Alabama Gymnastics (@BamaGymnastics) January 27, 2018
The Crimson Tide will be able to do that one final time this season as Alabama heads to St. Louis this weekend for the NCAA Championships, held in the same venue where the SEC title was decided last month.
It’s also where Guerra finished tied for first in floor exercise and helped spark her team to a second-place finish in a field featuring a league-record six teams that subsequently made it through the regionals.
“It was so cool,” senior Nickie Guerrero said. “The floor scores were so tight, it was crazy that a 9.9 won the meet, but it was definitely deserved. Any other meet it would have been higher, so it doesn’t matter.
“We really needed it and she’s been clutch.”
This after undergoing a surgical procedure that was so extensive her recovery didn’t last weeks. Or months. It lasted years.
“It’s definitely been worth it,” Guerra said.
Guerra’s back issues go back to long before she joined the Crimson Tide, and developed when she was performing at the elite level with Texas Dreams Gymnastics. She had been cleared by her doctor for Junior Olympic competition in 2013 with hopes of making the national team, only to have to shelve them.
“I had four breaks in my back, two in the L3 and two in the L4, and basically it like detached the back portion and the front portion was slipping out of alignment,” she said about the spinal segment where some people experience lumbar herniated discs.
“I had already rested and recovered from my first back injury and it got worse when I went back six month later.”
The procedure was performed by Texas-based doctor Mark Wylie, who didn’t shut the door on her career, in part because he knew if anyone could come back from it and complete again it would take someone with the right attitude and approach. Someone like Guerra.
However, the rehab would be long, slow and arduous.
First she had to basically relearn how to walk, and then build back up just to handle everyday things. Only once her strength had returned could she begin to try simple gymnastics moves such as a cartwheel, but very carefully.
“The recovery process was very emotional,” Guerra said. “It was very up and down. There was a lot of times when I didn’t think I’d get to where I was now. I couldn’t walk for a while. I couldn’t like condition. I’d sit in the gym and watch and move my arms, and that was about it for several, several months.”
Making matters worse was that Guerra didn’t know anyone who had gone through a similar surgery and recovery and returned to complete. There was no template to go by, and no one with whom to share the experience.
It took two years for her to compete again. During Alabama’s 2016 home opener against Missouri the freshman was inserted into the lineup on floor exercise and scored 9.90.
The steps continued. She added uneven bars and this year it was vault after assistant coach Bill Lorenz taught her a different way to do her approach that had the same degree of difficulty in scoring but would be less physically stressful.
Specifically, what everyone else does is called a Yurchenko-style vault. It entails doing a round-off (which redirects the horizontal speed up in order to jump higher) onto the springboard and a back handspring onto the vault. From there the gymnast performs a salto, ranging in difficulty from a simple tuck to a triple-twist layout.
“My vault you do the same thing, a roundoff punch on the floor, but you do a half-on on to the vault, so you do a half-turn,” Guerra said.
“I don’t think anybody in the NCAA competes with my vault in particular, with the half-on, half-off.”
Guerra scored a career-best 9.900 on the vault at the Tuscaloosa Regional, which Alabama won going away.
“The first time she did a vault, it had been four years since she last competed in vault,” Duckworth said. “The first time she did a floor routine was two years after her back surgery. I cried like a baby.
“When she did the vault I didn’t have tears, I had such happiness that she beat the odds.”
A springboard to more
Both in and out of the gymnastics locker room, Guerra comes across as fun, hardworking and definitely outgoing. She’s the kind of person who will see a young girl by herself and not only go over and talk but maybe give her something that was only meant for the team.
It’s a big reason why Wylie is encouraging Guerra to get into medicine, and she’s hoping to get into his field.
“Ari is the one who’s bubbly and smiling,” said senior Kiana Winston, who earlier this week won the Paul W. Bryant Award as Alabama’s top female student-athlete for 2017-18. “Her smile lights up a whole room. You can tell that she is the positive energy that she brings, she’s an extrovert.
“You can thrive on her energy.”
But no description would be complete without the word determined. Guerra is still anything but pain-free, and has days she has to just work through it. It’s been anything but easy.
“There are certain skills in gymnastics that cause more anguish than others, and of course there are days I’m sure when her back is bothering her,” said her father, Mark Guerra, who is very proud but tries to remain humble about his daughter’s accomplishments.
“It’s been a quite a journey for her.”
And one that’s far but complete.
“Sometimes I can get frustrated with myself in the gym or whatever, and if I just look back at that it’s kind of incredible to see how far I’ve come,” Ari Guerra said. “I couldn’t even walk at one point with my back injury.”