By NATALIE IACOPETTI
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa women’s gymnastics team will host Air Force and Ball State on Saturday for its annual Pink Meet.
Sadly, breast cancer affects millions of Americans, and the gymnastics community is not immune to the disease. Former NCAA gymnast Talya Vexler has made a significant impact that continues to strive through multiple decades of gymnastics. Her story battling breast cancer led to the first annual Pink Meet in 2004.
Vexler was a standout gymnast at the University of Georgia from 1999-2002, earning NCAA All-America honors three times and was a big part of three SEC championship teams (1999, 2001, 2002), including one team national championship.
One day, Vexler was studying when she felt a pea-sized lump underneath her arm. She went to the doctor to get it checked out. The doctor told her to be patient and return in a month to see if anything had changed. One month passed. Nothing had changed.
The lump was still there, not bigger nor smaller. The doctor recommended Vexler see a surgeon. His prognosis was similar to the first doctor but left Vexler with two options — they could continue to monitor the cyst, or they could take it out. Vexler opted for the latter. She believed the minor outpatient surgery would get rid of her lump for good. But Feb. 23, 2003, is a day Vexler will remember for the rest of her life.
Her worst fear. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news was even more startling, considering Vexler’s family had no prior history of breast cancer or any other cancer for that matter.
The University of Georgia was very supportive and hosted the nation’s first Pink Meet in Vexler’s honor in 2004, decorating the arena in pink to spread awareness.
In 2003, the NCAA decided to designate one home gymnastics meet each season as a “Pink Meet.” The University of Iowa has been participating in this tradition since 2006.
Head coach Larissa Libby’s first Pink Meet was in 2004, “It was such a significant moment for women’s gymnastics coaches as in any given year we have a group of young women in our care whom, until this moment, we believed to be ‘too young’ to be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Iowa head coach Larissa Libby said.
The Pink Meet serves as a reminder of how important it is to be aware of your body — no matter your age. “Even men are diagnosed with breast cancer. Please learn to self-examine and do it regularly, it could save your life”, Libby said. “Unfortunately, we have seen far too many variations of cancer play a part in the lives of our staffs our athletes, and our coaches. We have all been a part of some significant and triumphant battles and we have also bared witness to battles lost… and honestly, nobody should ever have to deal with any of it.”
The meet has helped bring awareness to not only the sport of gymnastics and its athletes, but fans as well.
“The overall message I want people to take from learning of Talya’s story is early detection,” Libby explained. “While Pink meets are significant in women’s gymnastics for multiple reasons, I don’t want to downplay the growing amount of cancers that affect us, Hawkeye Nation, and those whom we love every day.”
The GymHawks annual Pink Meet will start at 4 p.m. (CT) inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa will have pink warm-ups, and fans are encouraged to wear pink.