The pain started halfway through her sophomore year.

UF gymnast Claire Boyce started feeling discomfort in her hip, which got worse as the season went on.

At the 2015 NCAA Championship, she was fighting just to make it through a routine.

But despite her injury, she earned All-American honors as the leadoff on floor, helping the Gators to a third consecutive national title.

Nearly two years and one hip surgery later, Boyce decided — months from another potential national title run — to end her gymnastics career in the middle of her senior season.

It wasn’t the way she envisioned the ending to a career spanning nearly 18 years, but she knew it was time to embrace a new role for the Gators.

And despite her gymnastics career ending, she’s already moving on.

“I wanted to be everything I could be for the team,” Boyce said. “But I knew at that point it just wasn’t going to be enough.”

• • •

For the first time in over a year, Boyce was ready to compete.

It was Jan. 8, and the Gators were opening up the season on the road at N.C. State.

After spending her junior year on the sideline recovering from a nine-hour surgery, she was finally given the opportunity to open her senior season on floor.

“I always tell people she basically had a whole hip replacement,” former Florida teammate Bridget Sloan said. “Normally, if you can get up and walking, and maybe running, it’s awesome. But the fact that she was able to come back and actually do gymnastics is pretty remarkable.”

Throughout her recovery process, returning had been the long-term goal. She wanted to lead the team as the sole senior on Florida’s roster.

After that initial matchup with the Wolfpack, Boyce hoped she would be able to make it through the rest of the schedule, but after the Arkansas meet on Feb. 17, she knew that the physical pain and stress was too much.

Instead of continuing and risking permanent damage to her hip, she made the choice to retire.

It was a relief for Boyce’s mom, Kimberly Wilson, who was 18 hours away from her only daughter.

“I never told her how many nights I would lie awake worried about what she was doing,” Wilson said. “I know her, that she pushed herself way further than she should. I was definitely worried.”

Through the first seven meets, Boyce was part of four floor lineups, posting a season-best 9.875 against Georgia in what turned out to be her last time competing in the O’Connell Center.

She holds collegiate-bests of 9.95 (beam), 9.90 (floor) and 9.875 (bars).

For the remainder of the 2017 season she will serve as a student-coach, which allows her to stay involved with the team.

“She’s just such a positive role model," Florida coach Jenny Rowland said, "and it just shows how wonderful of a leader she has been on this team.”

• • •

At some point during this season, all four of Florida’s freshmen were asked the same question: Which teammate helped you the most when transitioning to college?

They had the same response: Claire Boyce.

If Rachel Gowey needed help figuring out what outfit she should wear for a team event, Boyce would help her pick one out.

If Amelia Hundley was having a rough day at practice, Boyce would know exactly what to say to make her feel better.

If Sierra Alexander needed help balancing school with gymnastics and having a social life, Boyce was there to offer her advice on how to manage her time.

“If she can do anything to help her team, she’s going to do it,” Sloan said. “In my eyes, Claire was my person, and she still is.”

Helping her teammates is a role that she had always taken seriously, and it became even more important during her junior season.

While she couldn’t contribute on the mat, off the competition floor she developed even deeper relationships with those around her.

“Gymnastics comes to end an eventually, and being able to grow as a person and learn who you are, that’s really important,” Boyce said.

But while her decision may still sting, she is appreciating the time she still has left as a Gator.

“I want to grow up to be like Claire,” her mom said. “Because she is so wise beyond her years.”

• • •

When Boyce announced that her career had come to an abrupt end, it forced her teammates to take a step back and examine their own careers and how fortunate they are.

“You kind of take it for granted sometimes, every day coming in and training,” Hundley said. “You have to go back and take a second and count all of your blessings.”

But it’s actually all the time spent in hospitals over the years that has inspired Boyce.

After she graduates in August with a degree in applied physiology & kinesiology-fitness wellness, she is going to nursing school.

With hopes of someday working in an emergency room, she’s already ahead of her future peers in some ways.

She’s not intimidated with the stress and demands that a nursing job requires, which she can thank gymnastics for.

“My whole life we’ve had training and had so much on our plates,” Boyce said. “I feel like that would suit me.”

Contact Lauren Staff at lstaff@alligator.org or follow her on Twitter @lstaff27.

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