IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa women’s gymnastics team’s motto of ‘stand out’ has taken a literal meaning for junior Clair Kaji.
“I tore my achilles last January, just as the 2018 season began,” Kaji said.
It was a long road to recovery for the 2017 NCAA qualifier. Without gymnastics, Kaji lost part of her identity and it forced her to redefine her purpose and role on the team.
“I thought who I was as a person was gymnastics and without it, I felt lost,” Kaji said. “I questioned my purpose, my role, and my person.”
Kaji’s injury forced her to find other ways to stay involved with her teammates.
“It is very important that you stay involved with your team,” Kaji said. “An injury can’t take you out mentally, even if it takes you out physically. You have to give more in other aspects.”
And so Kaji dedicated herself to becoming mentally stronger while her body physically recovered.
“Everything changed when I let go and embraced my journey,” Kaji said. “My journey back onto the floor, but more importantly it was a journey in finding who I am and who I wanted to become.”
Kaji became a beacon of hope for others who have witnessed her persevere through an injury and come out the other side stronger than before.
“She has become so much more as a person, than we ever thought she could be,” UI head coach Larissa Libby said. “She is ten times the person that she was. She is a leader, she is more focused, she is more disciplined, she is happier, which is odd. How are you happier after an injury? It really showed her who she is.”
“I owe so much thanks to Larissa (Libby) for bringing me into this program because the culture of this program is that of genuine care,” Kaji said. “Our coaches and staff invest in us as people far before us as athletes.”
When Kaji returned to gymnastics before the 2019 season, it was like riding a bike with a small adjustment period.
“Honestly, the first couple times were weird,” Kaji added. “I felt like I was off balance even the visual part of being back on the beam was different. That really only lasted for a week. I trusted my body and I knew that I was able to do it. I’ve been doing this my whole life.”
A year to the day on Jan. 19, 2019, Kaji was back on the beam, floor, and bars performing in front of the Hawkeye faithful inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Kaji scored a team-high 9.900 on beam, besting her 9.850 from that fateful day in 2018.
“To allow yourself to be vulnerable, to embrace your person, quirks, flaws and all, to empower each other, to be proud of your story,” Kaji said, “ultimately, that’s what stand out means to me.”
The GymHawks host Rutgers in their third home meet tomorrow at 4 p.m. (CT). Doors will open at 3 p.m.