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32-Year-Old Mom Launches Comeback To Elite Gymnastics

Amy Sisk
Between vaults, Kristal Bodenschatz smiles at her brother Donnie Uzelac, who's coaching her at their family's gym, Uzelac Gymnastics, in Johnstown.

Kristal Bodenschatz stands tall on the balance beam before she launches into a front tuck.

Two of her children jump from mat to mat, unaware of the potential danger if they get too close and she falls.

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
Bodenschatz takes a break from practicing front tucks on beam to talk with her 2-year-old son, Jaxson.

Bodenschatz sticks her flip, then looks down at her 2-year-old son smiling up at her from below.

“You’ve got to sit,” she tells him.

“No!” he pouts.

Her family’s gym, Uzelac Gymnastics in Johnstown, is one big empty playground this morning for her youngest children.

“This is usually how I train, with my kids in tow,” she said.

For Bodenschatz herself, training here is a second chance at fulfilling a childhood dream.

Many female gymnasts peak in their teens or early 20s, then retire. Bodenschatz was no exception, until last summer when she decided to don a leotard and chalk up her grips again at age 32.

Most members of the U.S. women’s national team weren’t even born when she won her first national championships as a junior in 1999. Yet, she shares a goal with many of them: making the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Earning a spot will be tough because the United States has a lot of depth.

“At this point, I can’t really say that I’m right with them,” Bodenschatz said. “I’m still trying to get out my nerves and get back into competition.”

A 2004 Olympic hopeful

Bodenschatz grew up a self-described gym rat, always at the Johnstown gym where her mom worked.

Brenda Uzelac knew her daughter could benefit from training across the state at Parkettes, a facility with a history of producing some of the country’s best gymnasts.

“I came home one day and said to my husband, I’m going to move to Allentown,” Uzelac recalled. “He absolutely thought I was crazy because we’re a small town and no one leaves the area, usually.”

She and her daughter, then 8 years old, made the move first. The rest of the family joined them in Allentown a year later.

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
Bodenschatz performs a handstand on beam.

Bodenschatz progressed really quickly at Parkettes.

Her brother Donnie Uzelac recalled the day she won her first national title.

“We’re just walking down the street and kids are just swarming,” he said. “I felt like bodyguards.”

The family managed to find some peace when they sat down to eat a meal, only to have more requests for autographs the second they got up to leave.

“I’m like, 'Oh my gosh, my sister is famous,'” Donnie Uzelac said. “She is going to be an Olympian.”

Bodenschatz won national championships the next two years, but then came a string of disappointments.

Her coaches pushed hard to make it to the Games, and she said that’s ultimately what led her to leave Parkettes the year before the event, feeling burnt out. She eventually went back, only to dislocate her ankle performing a release move on bars in January 2004. She didn’t even watch the Olympics on TV later that year.

Still, she had a full-ride gymnastics scholarship to Pennsylvania State University.

“My heart was broken, and I was not ready to continue,” she said.

One unfortunate landing on a tumbling pass at practice sealed her fate. Bodenschatz went crooked in the gym’s foam pit, whacking her head on the cement side.

With a bad concussion, she felt sick just trying to read. She dropped out of college to move back home to Johnstown, where she has since coached at her family’s gym.

That’s where she started training again last summer, with that Olympic dream still on her mind.

“Coming back into the sport was a very big deal because I actually hated gymnastics,” Bodenschatz said. “To find the love of it again is just amazing. It’s fun. I feel like a kid again.”

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
Bodenschatz often brings her children with her to the gym while she trains.

‘I can do it now’

Bodenschatz’s brother and mom weren’t sure what to think when she floated the idea of a comeback last August, but the idea made them nervous.

“We were like, we’re going to be the coaches and if she gets hurt, it’s all our fault,” Brenda Uzelac said.

Bodenschatz had not used her core muscles in years, plus, she’d had her appendix removed and undergone a cesarean section. So she spent a lot of time conditioning to get her body back in shape. Her ankles, knees and back still take a beating.

“They hurt and they’re sore, but I don’t push them to the max where I know I’m going to hurt myself,” she said. “That’s the big difference. I hear myself now. I know when to stop, and I know when I can push.”

The timing, she said, just seems right.

“I’m married, and we have three amazing kids, and I’m at that point now that I’m like, wow, I miss doing stuff, I miss flipping,” she said. “I can do it now.”

Bodenschatz is trying to get back and even upgrade the skills that earned her gold all those years ago.

Gymnastics has changed a lot since then, with a new scoring system and athletes like Simone Biles throwing difficult skills no one attempted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I feel like back then you had to be lean and artistic,” Bodenschatz said. “Nowadays, it’s all about power.”

A big test came at her first meet earlier this year in Ohio.

She competed after just six months back in the gym.

“I was prepared, but I never got nervous at a meet ever in my life until this one,” she said.

Vault went well, but she fell twice on beam and did not earn the score she needs to qualify for the U.S. Classic this summer.

The U.S. Classic would be her first major national competition in 15 years, and an important step on the road to Tokyo to show that she may be a contender. She’ll get another chance at an upcoming meet in June.

If she doesn’t make it, she’s OK with that. Simply competing again, she said, is an accomplishment.

“Doing those other things is just icing on the cake,” she said.

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
Bodenschatz's family is a frequent presence in the gym. Her brother Donnie Uzelac and mom Brenda Uzelac are coaching her through her comeback. They are pictured here with two of her three kids, 4-year-old Ethan and 2-year-old Jaxson.

Throughout her return, she has drawn inspiration from the word “believe.” It’s written in rhinestones across a leotard she often wears, and she’s selling matching ones to fund her competition travels.

It resonates with young girls at the gym who see her evening training sessions.

“The most important part for me about this whole experience is just to empower girls to never give up,” Donnie Uzelac said.

They’re watching Bodenschatz believe in herself and find joy in this sport once again.