Former state-champion gymnast Madison Graves has come full circle.
As a kid growing up in McKenzie, Madison was a student and a competitor. While in college at Tennessee-Martin, she helped coach up-and-coming tumblers. For the past four months, she has been part of the athletic training staff for the University of Florida gymnastics team.
After graduating from UT-Martin, Graves enrolled in the University of Evansville Masters of Athletic Training program, which has a different way of offering its education to students.
“Our second year in the masters’ program has what is called an immersive semester, and it basically means you don’t have to stay on campus for clinicals,” Graves said. “Evansville has contracts for different schools and colleges.”
Graves could have worked with area high schools, Western Kentucky’s football and baseball programs, some of Vanderbilt’s athletic programs and a few others. One of the opportunities raised her eyebrows.
“Florida was a big, new contract for the program. I could have worked with football, swimming and diving and gymnastics,” she said.
The decision wasn’t difficult. She set her sights on the Gators’ gymnastics program. She said she had to write a letter of interest and get ready for job interviews. She made it.
“Thankfully, I was invited to go to Florida gymnastics,” Graves said.
She had been a lifelong practitioner of the sport and even suffered an injury that sidelined her for a full competitive season, which may have cost her an opportunity to earn a gymnastics scholarship somewhere. Graves believes that experience may have helped shepherd her toward being an athletic trainer. That and the fact that, having been a competitive gymnast, she could, perhaps, identify with the bumps and bruises the athletes incur.
“I think my gymnastics background has helped and it’s hard to explain, but it’s very exciting to me to come full circle,” Graves said. “I got to see three different perspectives in the sport of gymnastics. I could understand their pain, their mindset. I could relate with them. The gym was their happy place. I do think it helped me as an athletic trainer having the background that I had.”
Also, suffering the knee injury, one that required surgery, helped lean her toward this career.
“These healthcare professionals wanted me to get back in the sport I love to do. They had a huge influence on it and knowing what I know now, having all these classes, it’s just amazing everything I’ve learned,” Graves said, offering that during her rehabilitation stint, she had to learn how to walk normally again.
At first, Graves said she really wanted to do physical therapy following her injury. Somewhere during the process, it occurred to her that she’d really rather be helping a college gymnastics team where the action is.
“Physical therapists may see athletes from a lot of different teams and when they seem] them, the injury already has happened,” she said. “I realized I wanted to travel and be in on the action. You see a lot of the injuries when they first happen and it’s surreal having to figure something out on the spot.”
Graves has been a big fan of gymnasts ever since she was a toddler and has followed it diligently. She watched the college meets, national and international competitions and even the Olympics, where she has met former U.S. Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson along the way.
Suddenly, she was in the same room, working with all these gymnasts she’d seen on television.
“Growing up, I looked up to all the college gymnasts. Before I actually went down there, I had to think about that. They are in the SEC, on TV, some are Olympic hopefuls, some are elite,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘All right, Madi, you can’t mess this up.’ It kind of hit me like that.”
“One of the things to witness and be a part of is that every Friday we see them competing on TV. Being able to be around them like normal student athletes, like anywhere else, it was neat to be around them living their lives as normal student athletes. When you are there at the meet, you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually part of this.'”
That produced an interesting by product.
“After church one day, someone told me I was on TV,” she said with a laugh. “It just didn’t register because it’s not something you think about when you are in that atmosphere working day in and day out.”
Graves said she was living her dream job while working with the training staff at Florida, but she says she’s still a Tennessee Vols’ fan at heart.
“I get asked that question a lot. I’m a Gators’ gymnastics fan, but I’ll always be a Tennessee fan,” she said, conceding that when Tennessee and Florida competed, she kept to herself. For a time, she worried because her car had Tennessee license tags and a “Rocky Top” sticker on the back. But she never dealt with any malicious mischief.
Graves left her assignment with the Florida gymnastics team and headed back for her last semester at Evansville.
“I graduate in May,” she said. “We will see where I get job offers. I’m applying for intern positions at different places, but there are no definite plans just yet.”