Sydney Converse’s comeback: Gymnast’s return could be spark Iowa State needs

Sophomore Sydney Converse performs on the balance beam during the Cyclones tri-meet against Southeast Missouri and Centenary. Iowa State won the meet with a score of 195.775.

Austin Anderson

It was the takeoff on the last pass of a roundoff back handspring double tuck.

It was what gymnastics coach Jay Ronayne said was “one of the simple ones for her.” That’s when Sydney Converse felt a pop in her ankle.

The gymnastics team had practiced in Beyer Hall on a Friday in the middle of October 2016. Ronayne stood right off the floor a few steps inside the door of the gymnastics practice facility. He watched as one of the bright young stars on his promising youthful team lay on the floor after a fall on a pass during a floor exercise routine.

Converse was down for a second before she got right back up. Her ankle hurt, but not bad enough to prevent her from doing another pass on floor. At this point, Ronayne assumed it was probably just a sprained ankle.

But when Converse started walking, she limped for a few steps. Then she couldn’t put any weight on her foot at all.

As a freshman last season, Converse came in and immediately showed the talent that led her to 12 state titles when she competed for the Georgia Gymnastics Academy in her home state.

When she got to Iowa State, she participated in every meet on beam and the majority of meets on floor and vault as well.

“I’ve said it over and over, 9.900 [on balance beam] or better, she can do that,” Ronayne said. “She was knocking on the door of it [last season]. It was right at the end of the season and she ran out of time.”

The end of the season was the only thing that could stop Converse last year, and it appears an injury was the only thing that could slow her down this season.

After that practice in which Converse injured her ankle ended in October, the team had the weekend off and Ronayne, who was still under the assumption it was a sprained ankle, didn’t see or hear from Converse until the team trainer delivered the results of the X-ray.

Converse didn’t sprain her ankle.

“I swore a little [when I heard the news],” Ronayne said.

She had fractured her tibia.

“It was devastating on every level,” Ronayne said. “Her bars were a little behind, but the other three events were stellar. Her floor routine is amazing, better tumbling than anyone else on our team, and we have some really good tumblers. The highest level of tumbling you will see in the NCAA, and she was doing it fairly easily.

“[It was] just one weird tumbling pass. She punched the floor, and the floor punched back.”

The doctor gave Converse options.

Converse could let her ankle heal on its own without surgery and be out the entire season or have surgery and be back strong enough to compete, at least on some events, midway through the season.

The decision was easy, but it was one that left her trapped in her room for a week.

“It hurt a lot to have any movement,” Converse said. “Even crutching to the bathroom took at least 15 minutes.”

Converse didn’t go to class for a week. As soon as that first week ended, though, she was back in the gym cheering on her teammates, and the recovery process began.

She couldn’t do anything physical, so for the first two months, she rehabbed in the pool and did mental routines where she visualized herself doing routines and getting back to health.

“It’s her attitude, she’s very positive,” junior Hilary Green said. “Throughout all of it, she was there for all of us practicing and competing. She’s worked really hard to get back to where she is now.”

Where Converse is now is still not where she wants to be. The coaching staff has eased her back into the lineup, having her just compete on the balance beam in the two meets since her return. Ronayne expects Converse to be added to the vault lineup before the season’s end. As for a return to the floor, Ronayne said in a “perfect world,” Converse would be ready to compete in nationals, if the Cyclones make it that far.

For now, however, three months after her injury, Converse has made a much-anticipated return to help bolster a lineup that already had realistic goals to make it to nationals.

The comeback was completed when Iowa State hosted and defeated Southeast Missouri and Centenary earlier this month. Converse stood on the balance beam, a little nervous, she said, but far from rusty, and competed at Hilton Coliseum for the first time in nearly a full year.

Her teammates swallowed her into a group hug when she finished the routine — a 9.825.

“It felt like I never left,” she said. “Having my teammates run after me, it made everything worth it.”