Far from home, a gymnast looks to stick landing

By Noah Auclair/Arizona Sonora News

Payton Bellows sits near the University of Arizona main library, smiling and laughing as she talks about her hometown, thousands of miles away on the East Coast. A naturally outgoing person with dark hair, her biggest passion in life, and the reason she traveled so far from home, is gymnastics.

In a blue shirt with “Arizona” emblazoned in white across the chest, the five-foot-four tall Bellows is a well-built athlete in a small package. As she flashes her big, white smile, it’s almost impossible to tell that for nearly a year-and-a-half, Bellows has been without the very thing that brought her so far from home.

A native of a rural Massachusetts town, Bellows attended a regional high school comprised of three towns, so you would think that her school was packed with students. According to her, however, that wasn’t the case.

“I had a hundred kids in my graduating class, so yeah, it’s crazy,” Bellows says, trying to put the size of her town into scale. At the time of the 2010 census, Southwick had a population of 9,502 residents, just about a fourth of the students who, on a yearly basis, attend the University of Arizona.

“My friends were the neighborhood kids, basically probably like 10 kids in my grade lived in my neighborhood,” Bellows says. “We all hung out, growing up through grade school. And then come high school, everyone kind of goes their own way, and that’s when I started getting really into gymnastics.”

Although she didn’t become a die-hard gymnast until high school, she started out in the sport at a much earlier age. Her parents, Timothy and Laura, put her in a class for toddlers. Her mom was a coach for gymnastics, so Bellows would just follow and go to the gyms her mom would be coaching at.

“I started when I was two, and competing at six. And then from then on, I was doing like four days, four hours a day,” Bellows says. 

It wasn’t until high school that Bellows realized just how far, literally, gymnastics could someday take her.

“In gymnastics, there’s either Olympics or college, and once you hit that level, at around like 14, 15 years old, I had the realization Olympics wasn’t it,” she says with a laugh.

Being an Olympic athlete isn’t easy, especially when you are forced to think about the prospects at such a young age. As she took the time to consider things like missing family, getting injured, and the idea of moving all over the country, Bellows experienced a shift in her goals.

“So around freshman year of high school, goals switched to ‘Okay, I want to get a college scholarship now,’” she says.

It was around that time when the college recruitment process began. That was also when injuries reared their ugly head and started to make an impact on Bellows’ gymnastics career.

“I had a really weird recruitment process, because I was recruited my freshman year by Arizona, and by Maryland, and New Hampshire, and then I got hurt,” Bellows says. “I tore my shoulder, so I lost all my scholarships. I had to take like six months and get all my skills back, because that’s a big injury that most people don’t fully recover from.”

The way that scholarships work in gymnastics is different from the way most other sports handle them. Division I schools, like the U of A, are subject to a head count rule, where they can only have 12 gymnasts on athletic scholarships at any one point. Other schools don’t always have the full complement of scholarships, so they divide the ones that they have among the athletes. Some get the full four-year scholarship, some get three, two, and even one-year scholarships.

Scholarships aren’t cheap, and so colleges have to make their own decisions in regards to keeping or not keeping a player on scholarship when they get injured. In Bellows’ case, it was the latter.

However, Bellows would recover fully, and by the time sophomore year rolled around, she committed to the University of New Hampshire. She would be living just a state over, which she thought might be nice, because of its proximity to home. What she really wanted, though, was to create a little more distance between her and her home state. At the end of her junior year, a different school came calling.

“Arizona called my head coach and they’re like, ‘Hey, we want her, does she want to come far?’, which was really my goal. My head coaches at home … They did all the recruiting for me because you can’t talk to coaches,” she explains.

In the National Collegiate Athletic Association, schools aren’t allowed to contact an athlete until July 1 after their junior year of high school, but most won’t wait that long, and will instead contact an athlete’s club coaches.

“I had coaches at home, I grew up with them. So they wanted to send me to a good school and it may have been not the best ranked school, but they’re like, ‘We know the program, we know the coaches, we think you’ll like it there,” Bellows says.

She was sad to be leaving her friends and family behind. She already had an aunt and uncle living in Phoenix, but they were two hours away, and they didn’t have the closest relationship. One thing that Bellows said helped her adjustment to life in Arizona was that the summer before her freshman year, she came to the school for an early adjustment period, and to get acquainted with her new teammates. 

In her freshman season, Bellows was off to a strong start. In a meet at home against Utah, Bellows scored a season and career best 9.950 out of 10 on the vault. That score would go on to be the highest of any Wildcat on the team that season. It was during an upset of No. 20 Stanford in the McKale Center, that disaster struck.

Bellows was performing a tumbling routine when she felt like she’d broken a piece of equipment. In reality, she had ruptured her achilles tendon, the tissue that connects the calf muscle to the heel bone.

“I hurt my foot on the punch to a double back on the floor and it didn’t hurt, it just felt like I had broken the floor board,” Bellows says. “In the air, I knew it was my achilles because that is what most gymnasts explain the feeling to be when it ruptures.”

She knew her season was undoubtedly over, and with her mom in the stands, and her dad watching back home in Southwick, Bellows feared that the injury might mark the end of her gymnastics career.

“My initial thought was that it can’t really be torn, but then I was really sad because I thought my career as a gymnast was over,” she says.

“I was sitting in the stands, and thought it was her knee,” her mom, Laura Bellows, says. “Forty-five minutes later, her trainer, Sam, called and told me to meet her to go to the training room. When I walked in, [Head Coach] John [Court] told me what it was, asked if I needed a minute before I saw her, hugged me and said he was so sorry.”

Her dad, Timothy Bellows, had been watching the meet on the TV, and after frantically texting his wife to learn what happened, found out what the situation was from an unlikely source—Bellows herself.

“I was hoping it was her ankle,” Mr. Bellows says. “I actually found out first from the announcer, who said they saw her mouth (go): ‘It’s my achilles.’”

Her family was devastated, both for Bellows the person and the gymnast. After a strong start, the 2018 season was over.

“I was very sad for her,” Mrs. Bellows says. “Then I knew I had to walk in and be strong and make her laugh somehow, to get her mind off of it.”

Her mom had to stick around in Tucson for another two weeks, while Bellows had surgery and got adjusted to her new life, which included riding around campus on a scooter and getting the golf cart shuttle service. Overall, Bellows felt lost.

“Gymnastics, it’s all I know, it’s why I’m out here,” she says. “So, it was tough. When you don’t have gymnastics, you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

On average, it takes about a year for athletes to fully recover and come back from a ruptured achilles tendon, while some can take up to two years to be ready. According to Bellows, she’s on the two-year plan. She sat out her whole sophomore season as well, and still isn’t cleared just yet, although she says she will be by the time the season begins in December.

To try to deal with the pain of losing her season, Bellows honed in on her classes, and her pursuit of becoming a physical therapist. This year, she had an internship twice a week, shadowing a physical therapy office. She wants to be a physical therapist so she can help patients heal.

The Gymcats kicked their season on December 15 in the McKale Center, with the annual Gymcats Showcase—an exhibition for the team. They don’t compete against anyone, but perform their routines competitively for the first time of the season, in front of fans.

Bellows, understandably so, says she’s been anxious for the season to begin, and has trouble putting into words what it will mean for her to be back on the floor.

“A comeback is all I want right now, to have the hard work pay off,” she says. “I’m hoping this season, third time’s the charm.”

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