Heartbreak and Perspective – A Reflection of Aven’s Gymnastics Career

When my oldest child, Aven Salei, was 4 years old she wanted to take ballet classes. We found a great local school and she happily began. She danced beautifully for 4 years until we began to notice her tumbling every day in the backyard and flipping around the bars of the swing set. I remember my mother watching her one day and confirming what we already thought by saying, “Honey, you’ve got to get that little thing in gymnastics. She is a gymnast.”  So just before she turned 9 we enrolled her in the beginning class at the Arizona Sunray’s gym and discovered we were right, Aven was a natural born gymnast, with no fear to try anything the coaches taught her.

I remember the coaches coming and talking to Josh or myself at different times, before the class seasons were over, “Aven needs to move up. Aven has already learned all of the skills for this level and needs to go on.” This happened until the only place she could go was to a team. We attended an orientation and decided that the best fit for our family financially was to have her go into the Excel program. This program gave students the ability to choreograph their own routines, choose their own music and advance at their pace.

The Excel program works upon levels of bronze, silver, gold, platinum, and diamond. When Aven started her bronze season we were so excited. We didn’t know anything about the sport except what we heard being spoken when watching it on tv. Aven loved every minute of it and we loved watching her. We were learning a lot about the sport and enjoyed seeing her so happy, so strong, and so beautiful. She had many dreams of what she wanted to do with her gymnastics.

At the end of that year we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the coaches wanted to move Aven from bronze to gold and skip the silver level altogether. She was so excited and so were we, but after her very first day of training for the gold level, my husband, Josh, got laid off from his job. This was the third time this had happened to Josh over the course of the past ten years so we knew how to handle this situation: by claiming the promises made in God’s Word, the power of prayer, strong faith, and constant trust. We immediately went to prayer for Josh to find a new job and for God to provide for our family. I remember the prayer I prayed about Aven’s gymnastics. It was short, direct and full of trust.

“Heavenly Father, You know the current situation that our family is in financially. You also know how hard Aven has worked to get to where she is with her gymnastics. Right now, there is no possible way for us to pay for her to continue, so if this is Your will, you will make a way for her and provide all of the funds for her gold season. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

Now, keep in mind, paying for a gymnastics season is not like investing in your average sport. It is a serious financial commitment, but we knew that if God wanted her to continue, He would make a way.

The very next day I received word from an extremely generous person who loves our family very much. We learned that they wanted to not only pay for Aven’s classes so she could press on with her gymnastics dreams while Josh hunted for a job, but they were also going to pay for our other two children, Samuel and MaCaedyn, who were working diligently on becoming black belts in Tae Kwon Do and were not too far away from their goal.

We were overwhelmed. The joy of knowing our children didn’t have to quit pursuing their dreams, the gratitude we felt for such incredible generosity which was given for our children and the compassion this person had for our situation was amazing. The blessing that God gave us of providing for the children was wonderful enough, but we also were blessed to know that God had answered us directly to confirm that it was His will for Aven to continue in her gymnastics. And so she did. Because of the loving generosity of this individual which was extended to our children for almost an entire year while Josh desperately looked for a job. It is a debt I hope that someday we can repay, if not back to the person directly, through giving to others in situations of need.

Aven went on to have a wonderful gold season, placing in several events in various meets. But before she was to compete in the state meet, I noticed her hiding her hand from me. I learned that she had broken her middle finger in a practice and didn’t tell me because she was afraid that I wouldn’t let her compete. She did compete and went on to place 2nd on floor and 4th on vault. Proving that her love for the sport and her tolerance for pain were both very great.

When Aven began her platinum season she started with some new challenges. She had a growth spurt and had grown 5 inches in less than a year. She went from being 5′ to 5’5″, with 39″ of that being in her legs. She began having some serious lower back pain and could no longer perform some of the skills which she had easily done before, such as standing back handsprings, and back walkovers. We began physical therapy for her back troubles and learned from the doctor that because of her height and leg length, her center of gravity had shifted greatly. He told her that she needed to try and stay away from the skills where she had no momentum to flip her legs over. That would help take away the stress from her lower back. Aven listened, pressed on and persevered.

Next, she began having feet woe. Her father, Josh, suffers terribly from Plantar’s Fasciitis and Aven was diagnosed with the same problem. She began experiencing pain while performing on the beam and her landings on the floor event were becoming more and more painful. But, again, she pressed on and persevered. Her platinum season didn’t bring as many places in events as in previous years, but she learned that winning didn’t always involve receiving medals or trophies. If you read my other blog titled “The Dignity and Grace of Aven Salei on Her 14th Birthday” you will understand what I mean.

Each summer, Aven would get up 4 days a week and train from 7:30am to 11:30am, then in the fall, her schedule would shift to 4 evenings a week. Not as much as some train, but still, a commitment which demanded hard work and determination. During these days, Josh and I had our reflections upon those who went on to compete on college levels or the Olympics. We caught a glimpse of the kinds of sacrifices these athletes and their families make, both in time, finances and determination. It gave us a great respect for these families and their dedication to their dreams.

As Aven began her last year as a diamond competitor she had several different thoughts and emotions. She was excited to have made it to the highest level in the Xcel program and she was so happy to have made all the friends she had through the years. This was another blessing to our family. The coaches Aven has had and the girls on her teams have been incredible. We never saw any kind of jealousy or unhealthy competition among any of the girls at the gym. They all sincerely express love for each other and support one another, displaying what true teammates are supposed to be. They have built strong and happy, healthy friendships that I’m sure will last into the years to come. The friends Aven has won are the real prizes of gold.

Aven started training for the diamond season in May and she trained diligently until January for it. We couldn’t wait to see what all she had learned and how she had grown as every day she excelled more and more. Her season began with an Intrasquad meet, which is held by her own gym for her coaches to judge and review her skills and make sure she was set for the season. That was followed by another judges critique meet that did not have recorded scores. There was another meet in California that we couldn’t make, but on February 11, 2018, she had her favorite meet of the season, The Classic Rock, one of the largest meets in the country and the one which was hosted by her gym Arizona Sunrays.  Josh and I couldn’t wait to watch her. She had a beautiful warm up and then her team moved to the vault. She did three beautiful practice vaults (which I sadly did not video) and then the team began competing.

A few girls on the team had vaulted and we were cheering them on when Josh said, “Aven’s hurt.” What? How? She just ran by us and was fine, how did she get hurt?

Apparently, while waiting her turn to vault, she was doing a drill and somehow she rolled her ankle. She said she felt it pop and it began to swell immediately. Yet, she was trying to walk it off so she could still vault. Her coach took one look at it and upon seeing the swelling, immediately made her scratch and sent her to the medic. The medic told me to go get it x-rayed, which we immediately did. I took her to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Urgent Care on Shea Road. They told me that it wasn’t fractured, only sprained and full of fluid which would absorb back into her system, but that she could not resume her activities until she had seen an orthopedic doctor. We were extremely sad that she missed her favorite meet and also would miss her Winterfest meet in Flagstaff that next weekend. Still, we tried to be positive and were so thankful that it wasn’t broken and she would still have two meets left that season where she could compete for her last year so we could see her.

Josh made the appointment with the orthopedic doctor for February 14, 2018.

I woke up on that morning full of excitement for the day. Throughout my life I have always loved Valentine’s Day, even when I was single, I enjoyed having an excuse to enjoy some dark chocolate and watch romantic movies.

I had planned all kinds of fun things for my children and husband, starting with heart shaped biscuits for breakfast and enjoying a special Valentine’s show of The Price is Right with my kids. I had planned a special lesson for homeschool on St. Valentine with a some French, the language of love, then we did a study on our state of Arizona whose birthday is on Valentine’s Day. Josh was going to help me out by taking Aven to the doctor so I could keep working with our two youngest children, Samuel and MaCaedyn, on their school studies.

It was a rainy day in Phoenix and I was curious how long it would last… because rain in Phoenix is a rarity. I flipped on the news to catch the weather report but instead, I caught the breaking news: another shooting was taking place, this time in a high school in Parkland, Florida. I held my breath as I listened and watched the scene unfold for the world. The shooter was still at large and there was no information on how many kids or teachers had been shot.

After watching and praying for several minutes, I turned the tv off and went back to working with Samuel and MaCaedyn, but my mind was very distracted by what was taking place for so many terrified families in Florida. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through and was so thankful that I had the blessing of being able to homeschool my children.

When we heard Josh pull up in the driveway later that afternoon, I immediately got out his Valentine’s Day gift to surprise him. Josh loves cheese, rare and foreign. He calls them “cheeses of the world”, so I bought him a couple for his Valentine gift. I heard them come in the door followed by a shriek from MaCaedyn. I turned around and saw Aven was wearing a bright blue cast from her knee down.

My heart broke. I couldn’t believe it. I knew in that moment, her competitive season was over. I hugged her and began to cry. I thought about all of the hours, all of the pain she endured and fought thro was frustrated. Three different times I have taken my children to an urgent care facility for x-rays and three times I was told there was no break when in fact, they were broken. Once for Aven’s finger, once for MaCaedyn’s thumb and now this. Word to the wise, in my opinion, if you are in an emergency situation and need x-rays go to a hospital over an urgent care.

Aven immediately sat down and tried to do something positive with her situation, so she began painting her cast. Since Tom Holland, aka Spiderman, is her dream of a true love, she made herself a Spiderman cast. We were all very sad, but I told Josh, “Since we knew her doing gymnastics was God’s will, and He allowed this to happen, there has to be a reason. We have to keep our trust in Him. I hate this for her, but I have to trust in Him.”

Learning to trust God has not been an easy lesson for me to learn. For years through Josh’s layoffs, illnesses or other trials, I always had great faith that God could change the circumstance, but I did not always trust Him. I learned that having faith that God could do something was easy, but to trust Him was much harder because it meant you have to completely leave the situation at the feet of the Lord and keep your hands off. Sometimes trusting requires waiting, and sometimes, like in this case, you are just left with no clear answer as to why the trial happened and you just have to accept it. Thank God, we finally learned to trust Him or else this would have been much harder for us.

My mind then went back to the families in Parkland, FL. I turned the news back on and sank into the chair behind me when I read the words across the bottom of the screen: “17 dead, 14 injured”. In that moment, my perspective changed. Yes, Aven’s injury was real and her situation was something to be grieved, but her leg would heal and this time would pass. Aven was alive.

My heart broke for all of the families who had sent their children to school that day as they had for so many years and learned they would never be coming home. My mind went even farther, to parents who were still grieving the loss of their children due to other shootings, and even my mind went beyond the deaths that made the news to all of the parents in the world who had lost their children that day from illness, or accidents or something other unforeseen tragedy. Suddenly, I was thankful for our situation. Aven was injured, but Aven was alive. I was thankful for all of the days that I got to see her compete when so many parents never get the chance to see their child play a sport due to illness or handicaps. I was thankful that a fractured ankle was all she had and while her dreams of competitive gymnastics had ended, there were still many other dreams she had left to fulfill.

Instead of giving their children Valentine’s hearts that day, the Parkland parents were trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered hearts. Instead of planning out their children’s college days, they were going to be planning funerals. Instead of living their lives as they had with their children, they were faced with the horrifying truth that they would never see them smile again, be able to hug them, hear their voice, their laugh, their ideas, their dreams. Their time together was over.

I dried my eyes and went in to hug and kiss Aven and my other two children. I was so thankful. I knew that Aven’s dreams of gymnastics were not over, just the competing part. She still has big dreams of going on to learn more skills, becoming a coach and teaching children in need who cannot afford such a luxury. She is so wonderful with other children and loves to spend time teaching them. I know she will make a wonderful coach someday.

I joked with Aven telling her that we knew the door was closing this year to her competitive gymnastics career, it just got slammed shut more quickly… and on her ankle. She laughed.

Aven’s attitude and courage have helped us all. She has her moments with it from time to time, but those who have reached out to us during this time have brought her tremendous support and joy and the girls, coaches and staff members of Arizona sunrays have been wonderful. They have already offered her a part-time job teaching little children which she will be happy to accept when she is well. Her cast comes off on March 14th and she is determined to still try and compete in the state meet on March 22nd. We’ll have to see what the doctor says, but are inspired by her determination to never give up.

I wanted to write this story so that others can see how good God has been to our family and hopefully, if there is anyone out there who is in the same situation, if you haven’t tried Jesus to help you in your trial, I would highly recommend Him to you. I hope that other kids will also see that just because one door closes where your dreams are concerned, if you keep your head up high, trust in God and keep believing in your dreams, other great things can still happen for you.

We are so thankful to the Lord for blessing us with the strong, beautiful, courageous girl and we are more than thankful that she is alive, well and with us. Our thoughts and daily prayers will always be with the Parkland families and all of the other families who have lost children before their time, for their lives will never be the same again. May our wonderful God, Jehovah, pour out His love, strength, and peace that passes understanding upon them all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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