Payton Richards floated through the air with unbreakable focus until gravity pulled her down. She froze upon landing and unleashed an infectious smile in front of a socially distant, sold-out O’Connell Center versus Kentucky. She scored a 9.875 that tied her career-best on floor.
But Richards wasn’t always that way.
She would be nervous before events. So she would go to her club coach Don McPherson to support. He always responded that he was nervous, too.
Richards, like many athletes, became antsy before she competed. She created a pre-meet ritual akin to NBA star LeBron James’ chalk toss before tip-off for herself. She carried the habit like a tattoo from age 12 to college, even with different coaches and after she nailed a previous routine.
However, her gymnastics career didn’t start until her parents saw her on the sideline at her brothers’ football games.
Richards mimed the cheerleaders and cartwheeled. That’s when her mother Becky Richards knew her daughter was a gymnast.
“She would do everything that they did with not ever being coached,” Becky said.
The difficulty of their maneuvers never phased Richards.
Becky, a former gymnast and coach, worried for her daughter as she understood the sport’s intensity. She encouraged Richards to try out other sports like swimming and soccer. But none stuck like gymnastics.
She confronted that reality when Richards’ eyes were glued to the TV in the summer of 2004. That’s when Becky knew she belonged on the mats.
Carly Patterson surged back in the Olympics after she landed out of bounds on vault to seal the second all-around title in American history. Three-year-old Richards turned to Becky.
“Mommy, I want one of those. I want one of those, and I want to do that,” Becky recalled what Richards told her.
And Richards’ journey to Florida gymnastics took off like a plane down a runway in eighth grade. She got her passport stamped in Italy for an international meet and received interest from colleges.
Months before the trip, she started to complain to her parents about persistent pain in her lower back area. Becky took her to a pediatric orthopedic doctor, who treated it with physical therapy and dry needling, a treatment similar to acupuncture to ease muscular pain.
But two months later, Richards’ pain lingered despite the needles’ pricks and prods. The doctor then ordered 12-year-old Richards an MRI. Her journey became an expedition.
The results came in three days later, and her parents’ hearts sank into their stomachs.
Doctors discovered a tumor in her hamstring in January 2015. They diagnosed Richards with a nerve sheath tumor, a rare type of tumor treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Her doctor immediately referred them to Dr. Terrance Peabody, an orthopedic surgeon at Ann & Robert H. Laurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Her parents spent hours researching the tumor like the night before a final exam. They quickly learned it was more than a “baby tumor.”
Two weeks after the MRI, they met Dr. Peabody, and Richards’ father asked for the worst-case scenario.
There were two potential outcomes: the tumor is removed and biopsied or Richards would lose her leg and endure chemotherapy and radiation.
Her parents slumped out of Dr. Peabody’s office in disbelief. Their world shifted from a trip to Italy to a ride to the pediatric wing in a matter of days.
Tears trickled down McPherson and his wife Patrice’s faces when they found out about the original scan.
The second MRI poured gasoline on an open fire. Richards’ chances of returning to gymnastics looked slim. She would be lucky to walk correctly again as she suffered from a condition called drop foot, which causes difficulty lifting the front of the foot.
With each MRI, the news worsened. Richards’ tumor was encapsulated in her hamstring muscle.
Richards entered a state of denial. She downplayed the severity of the tumor like it was nothing beyond a sprained ankle. She thought she would return to the gym in a couple of weeks.
“She just didn’t understand it,” Becky said. “She had no clue. It was like when the doctor was talking to us; it went in one ear and out the other.”
Many in Richards’ life were worried that she wasn't taking the diagnosis seriously, especially because she may have never sported a leotard again. But she shared her unfiltered feelings with her lifelong friend Jessica Roberts.
Roberts met Richards in third grade and the duo became inseparable.
“She did everything she could and pushed and had this determination to get back to gymnastics and make it work,” Roberts said.
Richards prepared for the surgery so she could return to gymnastics.
Five days later, on Feb. 24, 2015, Becky, her husband and Richards’ grandparents sat in the waiting room of Ann & Robert H. Laurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
They stared at the surgery update board like students in a classroom glared at a clock for the end of the school day. After two hours, a nurse strolled out. A routine update delivered the news of a lifetime.
Richards was out of surgery.
When Dr. Peabody opened her leg and slid the hamstring over, the tumor popped out. He breathed a sigh of relief because the worst-case scenario was avoided. But the waiting game resumed. Dr. Peabody shipped the tumor out to pathology. They waited a week for the results.
Saddened by the neonate cries from the nursery, Richards didn’t want to spend another day in a hospital bed. Dr. Peabody struck a deal with her and said he would sign her discharge forms if she could walk to the bathroom and climb stairs. And she did.
The Richards’ left the hospital around midnight. But her family, coach and doctor weren’t convinced she was in the clear to return to gymnastics.
Alyssa Parlich, another of Richards lifelong friends, believed she emerged after the surgery with a new perspective on life.
“She realized that it could be over in like an instant,” she said. “She was a little bit more cautious and realized that she had an amazing gift.”
During her two month recovery, Becky and Richards didn’t mention gymnastics. McPherson, meanwhile, prepared for her return to Aerial Gymnastics Club.
He called Dr. Peabody to learn how to rehabilitate from her injury. The doctor gave Richards the green light to start practicing again but warned that she might not be the same gymnast.
“I knew if Payton came back to gymnastics, she would not be a happy camper if she couldn’t fly,” McPherson said.
The path was bumpy when she returned to her club’s gym. The doctors cleared her to start jogging and complete figure eights. McPherson noticed her foot looked like a puppeteer controlled it.
Six months later, it was like a light switch flipped on. Richards rediscovered her old self.
Richards overcame hurdles like the frustration of not picking up where she left off after surgery with hard work.
“Being here and being able to do what I love is surreal; it’s amazing,” she said. “I'm so grateful and thankful that it turned out that way because I know that there was a lot on the table that could have gotten taken away from me."
Richards’ career picked up, and she received interest from college coaches at 13.
But the sophomore only considered one school: Florida. The Gators and their star gymnasts like Alex McMutry, Bridget Sloan, Kennedy Baker and Alicia Boren became idols.
However, UF stood a thousand miles away from Mokena, Illinois, and her parents didn’t want to send her to school that’s so far away.
But they became sure of Richards’ decision when she walked into Dr. Peabody’s office two weeks after her surgery to have her stitches removed. She wore a Northwestern sweatshirt when he asked where she’s going for college.
She told the doctor that she was dead set on being a Gator. Dr. Peabody turned to Becky and told her that his mentor is a UF physician. That’s when they knew they made the right call.
And Florida reciprocated interest.
Richards captured assistant coach Adrian Burde’s eyes. Head coach Jenny Rowland admired her because she’s a natural at the sport.
“She smiles, and she is confident and she loves gymnastics,” Rowland said. “Really, those are the great attributes that I look for in an athlete is their love, and passion for the sport. She is just so bubbly and giddy.”
However, Becky wanted Richards to consider multiple schools to find the right fit for her. But she only needed to visit one.
The Richards made the 15-hour trek from Mokena, Illinois, to the Swamp. They visited Florida on Oct. 3, 2015, when the No. 25 Gators football team defeated No. 3 Ole Miss 38-10.
And the moment she stepped on campus, Richards felt at home, like she never left Mokena. She hung out with the 2015-2016 gymnastics team and met her parents at halftime. She begged her parents to let her commit, and they eventually gave in.
That day, Richards committed to Florida and posed for pictures with Gators Ring of Honor member and NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith — even though she didn’t know who the star was.
To Roberts, UF changed Richards for the better.
“She has gotten so much more confident being there,” she said. “I could tell she’s nonstop smiling, and every time I talk to her, she has no complaints.”
And when she competes in the O’Dome, her bubbly personality is on full display. Gators fans admire her positive attitude and music selection on the floor — Tom Petty.
She initiated her routine once AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black” blares from the speakers. But when the hymn of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down the Dream” hums through the arena, the crowd developed goosebumps.
They reminisce to fall Saturdays when Gators fans light up the Swamp with their cell phones and sing “I Won’t Back Down” at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Richards may have found a home 1,000 miles away, but she’s inspired new young gymnasts with her courage, bravery and bright personality at Florida.
When she returns to train in her old gym, little gymnasts swarm her to hug and welcome her back. They idolize her the same way Richards worshipped Sloan, McMurtry, Boren and Baker.
Regardless of the adversity she faces, Richards’ contagious smile never fades. Because she knows everyday isn’t guaranteed.
Contact Zachary Huber at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber