Feb. 4, 2012
By Amy Hughes
Collegiate gymnastics has been anything but smooth sailing for UCLA senior Kaelie Baer, but she is in position to finish strong in 2012.
Baer competed regularly on vault and floor exercise as a freshman for the Bruins in 2009, but her sophomore year saw the beginning of her two-year battle with injuries.
"I had a stress fracture in my shin and fibula," said Baer. "It's just a nagging injury, and you can't train through it because if you train through it, it will eventually break. My junior year, it was another one of those little things, but this time it was my second metatarsal. I was able to fight back through that, and at Southern Utah, I was able to do one exhibition bars routine, but when I was going to vault, I broke my elbow."
That elbow injury, suffered on January 14, 2011, ended her season before it really began. After another long stretch of focusing on regaining her health and rehabbing her injury, Baer sat down with the Bruin coaching staff to set out a plan for a successful and healthy senior season.
"Kaelie has a great enthusiasm for competition," said UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field. "She loves to compete and is a great, great competitor on every event. But she has stress fracture issues that prevent her from doing a lot of numbers and a lot of training. If we kept her training on all the events she is capable of training, which is the all-around, you multiply the amount of pounding on her legs every day. It was a decision: Do we want Kaelie to be a 9.5 (scorer) on four events, or do we want Kaelie to be a 9.9 on two events?"
"I'd been thinking about it as well," said Baer of the decision to limit her training. "We decided that to give me the best opportunity to stay healthy this year, make it through and have a great finish to my college career and a great senior year, it would be best to stop training floor. That was really hard for me because I absolutely love competing it, I love performing it. But it was the best decision. and I'm glad we made it."
It was decided that vault was where Baer could make the biggest impact for the Bruins. She has done exactly that, averaging 9.831 from the leadoff position on vault.
"It's a great spot to be in, but it's a hard spot at the same time," said Baer. "Anyone that is leading an event is starting your team off. That person needs to be solid, and you have to know that you can get a great performance from them every time. In our sport, you count five of the six scores. If something happens on the first person up, that puts pressure on the last five people. I feel blessed to be in that position and be able to lead off my team strong, especially when we're at home and get to start on vault. It's setting the tone for the whole team for the whole meet."
Baer's time away from competition due to injury has allowed for dramatic improvement in the areas that lead to a good leadoff gymnast.
"The biggest change has been her personal maturity," said Kondos Field. "She has matured in all ways that are great for her personally, and therefore she leads this team just beautifully. As much as you could ask for someone to mature in a short period of time, that's been the biggest thing is her personal growth."
Baer spent her time away from competition wisely.
"Being away from competition for those two years allowed me to feel what everyone else feels when they're not able to be out there," said Baer. "It was a struggle, but so much was learned. I absolutely love competing. It's one of my favorite things in the world. I'm appreciating every moment that I get this year.
"When I was away from competition, I was able to see how everything works from the sidelines," said Baer. "That has helped me to understand not only the importance of the leadoff spot, but that every single person on the team is of value. Those six people who are competing couldn't do it without the other people who are there cheering, who are injured, who are setting mats. We're a team. It's not just about the six people who are competing."
That team atmosphere has been a vital factor in Baer's drive to return to competition.
"It's so worth it," said Baer of the struggle to return competition. "In club, it's really hard especially at 16, 17 or 18 years old when all of your friends are doing things that you want to do. But if you can push through those and get to the college level, it is absolutely worth it. There is nothing better than being part of a team and pushing each other. Knowing someone has your back if you mess up, or just helping each other and learning from one another each day."
"I think that through her journey, she has learned a lot about humility, sincerity and compassion being much stronger than a win-at-all-costs mentality," said Kondos Field. "Those are the strongest personality traits one can possess."
"It has been quite the road," said Baer. "I would never have chosen for myself to be out for two years. It was hard to be putting in all the work and not being able to feel the competitive feeling that we love to do for our team. But without those two years to learn and grow so much, I would not have the season that I'm having now, and the appreciation that I have for each one of my teammates, and just being able to do this sport and be out on the events.
"This experience is one that I'm trying to treasure and enjoy each and every moment this year."