Samantha Piotrowski looks to lead gymnastics team after career-ending injury

Junior all-arounder Samantha Piotrowski center, reacted as she screamed joyously with teammates after she saw the overall score, putting CMU in the lead after the first event of four at the gymnastics meet Sunday at McGuirk Arena. CMU took first place in a meet of four teams, including Wisconsin- La Crosse, Wisconsin Eau Claire and Centenary. (Jake May/Staff Photographer)

Senior Samantha Piotrowski lay on the mat in disbelief after landing awkwardly on her arm during a practice series of flips.

“When I heard the pop, I felt uncertainty,” Piotrowski said.

She instantly erupted in tears, and soon the rest of her team surrounded her sobbing. Piotrowski ruptured her ulnar collateral ligament, and just like that the Central Michigan gymnastics’ senior captain’s career was over.

“It was life changing when I found out it was career ending,” Piotrowski said. “After doing gymnastics for 18 years — it was devastating.”

All her teammates could do was wipe away their tears, circle up and pray as she left practice.

But Piotrowski is not feeling bad for herself and leaving the program and moving on with her life.

She's doing the one thing an injured captain can do: Be another coach and a leader.

“Well I definitely think that as a senior, that the experience that I have, even the juniors and sophomores lack," Piotrowski said. "As a senior I think it’s my job to lead by example."

The ulnar collateral ligament injury in her elbow happened Dec. 30, nine days before gymnastics' first meet. She still went to that first meet, but as an inspirational leader instead of a performer.

The Naperville, Ill., native will continue to lead the team as captain even without competing. One of her goals as leader will be keeping the team calm in pressure-filled atmospheres.

“Especially when there is a competition setting where there is pressure," Piotrowski said. "Keeping your head on straight, keep poised and do things that you practice in the gym everyday.”

Head coach Jerry Reighard expects Piotrowski to lead, too.

“Her role obviously has changed, but she is still the captain of the team,” Reighard said.  “The underclassmen have looked to her over the last three months, and that’s not going to change. They still need to depend on her to be there to inspire them, and that’s a role that she will make.”

She plans to be another coach for the team.

“I’m one more eye in the gym, where now I don’t have to focus on myself. I can put all my energy toward them,” Piotrowski said. “I can lead by motivating them and speaking to them. My part on the team isn’t gone, it’s just very different.”

It is easy to learn from someone that has had so much success.

Piotrowski has been on back-to-back Mid-American Conference champion teams, and led them on bars.

Looking back, her favorite memory is when CMU hosted the MAC championships last year.

“Last year we hosted MAC championships and it was honestly the best energy and home crowd,” Piotrowski said. “And we absolutely blew the competition out of the water, the next team was almost a whole point behind us.”

She said it was a great send-off for the seniors.

“To do that in front of your home crowd, it was a great feeling. For our seniors, as their final send-off. It was the best feeling, it was really fun,” Piotrowski said.

Piotrowski certainly won’t let her injury stop her from achieving the next goals she has in life.

“Well, I’d like to work in some sort of broadcasting area, focusing on sports. I’d like to work with College Gameday, be the Erin Andrews (ESPN sideline reporter) type deal,” Piotrowski said. “But first I’m going to try and be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.”