Rachel Gowey stepped onto the mat, closed her blue-gray eyes and took a deep breath.
It was 2014, and she was a 16-year-old at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, a pit stop before she planned to represent the U.S. at the Pan-American games.
As she warmed up, she dismounted the beam with her signature triple twist, but she landed wrong.
Her knees buckled, and she crumpled onto the blue mat clutching her lower leg. Her coach, Liang Chow, swept her off the competition floor.
She’d fractured her right ankle.
A broken ankle could end a gymnast’s career, but not Gowey’s.
After more than six months of recovery and then an additional surgery to fix a floating bone chip, she returned to gymnastics and finally arrived at Florida.
Now, after tackling her injuries, shyness and falls, Gowey is a pivotal part of the No. 3 Gators’ lineup as the team heads into the NCAA Championship semifinals today in St. Louis with its eyes on an NCAA title.
“I want it so bad,” Gowey said. “I hope we can go out there and win that title.”
• • •
Rhonda Gowey doesn’t watch her daughter compete.
Not since Gowey fell off the bars during a competition when she was 10 years old.
The nerves and pressure she and her husband felt while watching their youngest of three daughters was overwhelming.
“They would kind of roam the concourse or sit in the bathroom until I was done,” Gowey said.
Gowey’s mother is a former high school gymnast who became a coach. Her older sister, Taylor, competed until middle school, but Gowey is the only one to take her skill to the collegiate level.
However, Gowey’s parents never pushed her into gymnastics.
Despite being raised by a gymnastics coach, she danced, played softball and did cheerleading.
Her mother unintentionally sparked her passion for the sport when she would bring a 2-year-old Gowey to the gym to play on the mats as she trained other gymnasts. It wasn’t until her mom got a job at an elite gym called Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute that Gowey took a class at the age of 5.
She told her mom she would do gymnastics for a year, and then she was done.
Even when Chow — who eventually coached Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas — personally asked her to join the gym’s team at age 7, she declined to focus on competitive cheerleading.
But eventually, she found her passion for to the sport.
In a career that spanned more than a decade, she worked her way up to Senior International Elite — the highest level of competitive gymnastics — by age 16 and won an individual and team gold medal while representing the U.S. at the 2015 Pan-American Games.
One of the final stages of her adolescent journey ended in San Jose, California, with an 11th place finish in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials last July.
Her hard work earned her a scholarship to the University of Florida.
As Rhonda drove the nearly 1,200 miles from Urbandale, Iowa, to Gowey’s new home in Gainesville last August, she reflected on the all those years throughout her daughter’s strenuous career.
“She had those days in the car where she would just would cry and say, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,” Rhonda said. “I said to her that day, ‘Rachel, if I would have turned the car around and went home, where do you think I would be driving right now instead of Florida?’”
• • •
Gowey stands at 5-foot-1.
The 19-year-old has curly shoulder-length light brown hair, normally pulled back into a ponytail before practice, with bright blueish-gray eyes.
Her nails are almost always painted. She likes brighter colors in spring and summer and prefers darker shades in the fall and winter.
She’s soft-spoken, shyer and more reserved than some of her teammates during interviews and answers questions more seriously.
But whenever she’s asked about her roommates — fellow freshmen Sierra Alexander, Amelia Hundley and Maegan Chant — her eyes crinkle as a wide smile spreads across her face.
The entourage — and sometimes teammate Rachel Slocum — do almost everything outside of the gym together. They go to the movies, hang in hammocks by Lake Alice, lie out by the pool and, occasionally, clad in fake mustaches and black hoodies, spy on each other’s dates.
“We’re like sisters now,” Chant said.
It’s a more social life than the one Gowey had in high school as an elite gymnast.
Back then, she traveled around the world and trained 29 hours six days a week while taking classes at nearby Johnston High School.
And while she went to prom and football games, going out to the movies on the weekends wasn’t usually an option for Gowey because of training and traveling to meets.
Her extreme focus and dedication molded her into a person her family didn’t always recognize.
“That elite world made her become so quiet and so withdrawn,” her mom said. “She really wasn’t like that at home with us.”
But that’s changed since she’s arrived in Gainesville.
“She’s really funny. She has this weird sense of humor,” teammate Alex McMurtry said, “and actually has this strong cackle, so you don’t hear her say much, but she’ll just burst out laughing on the bus.”
The Gators’ coach has seen a change just in the last few months.
“(She) had a hard time recognizing that it was OK to have a little fun, to smile, to laugh in the gym and really has just blossomed,” coach Jenny Rowland said. “She’s really come into her own as far as confidence.”
• • •
Gowey has had a solid freshman season.
She competed in the all-around six times, winning the title once.
She recorded five scores over 9.90.
She earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.
And during Florida’s meet against Missouri in the regular season, she came close to perfection with a 9.95 on bars.
However, her season hasn’t been mistake-free.
She fell five times, but each time she rose and recovered.
“If you’re making mistakes, you let them go and move forward,” Rowland said. “Gowey in general will come back into the gym focused and determined as ever.”
In her home debut, she nearly fell off the balance beam.
Two weeks later she redeemed herself in front of the home crowd by sticking her routine and earning a career-high score of 9.925.
At LSU on Mar. 5, she fell while performing her floor routine.
The following meet, in the Gators’ regular-season finale against West Virginia, she claimed her first career all-around title.
And after falling off the bars in the NCAA Gainesville Regional, Gowey is ready for one last comeback.
“I know I’m able to do it, and I know I’m able to do it well,” she said. “Having that mistake, it frustrates me knowing that I wasn’t able to put up my best.”
Gowey is prepared to push past her mistakes when she competes in the NCAA Championship semifinals today in what could be the last meet of her freshman season.
Her ability to overcome stems from a lifetime spent overcoming not just falls, but injuries, shyness and intense, constant practices.
“Sweat would just be pouring down her face,” Rhonda said. “And she would just be doing beam routine after beam routine after beam routine, and I thought ‘How can she keep doing that?’
It’s paid off. It’s all been worth it.”