From darkness, Vise finds light with Oklahoma gymnastics
Hollie Vise and gymnastics are friends again.
Vise, a junior for the 10th-ranked Oklahoma women's gymnastics team, is enjoying renewed enthusiasm for a sport that once led to the biggest disappointment in her life.
The 21-year-old Dallas native begins the 2009 season Friday at No. 3 Florida as the Big 12's defending champion on the uneven bars, an event on which she was once a world champion.
Coach K.J. Kindler expects big contributions from Vise on the bars and balance beam as the Sooners try to build on their program-best eighth-place finish at nationals last year.
"It's nice to see that she loves gymnastics again," Vise's mother, LeeAnn, said, "because for two years, I don't think she did."
The Hollie Vise Reclamation Project seems to be working.
It began 2½ years ago -- "ground zero," as Vise calls it -- when she arrived at Oklahoma still reeling from the disappointment of not making the 2004 U.S. Olympic squad.
She had no motivation, no confidence and was woefully out of shape.
"I was let down a lot," Vise said. Going to the Olympics "had been my goal for so long."
Placing Vise on an intense cardio and strength conditioning program would be easy enough. But restoring Vise's confidence was another matter.
"I do think she came in defeated from her experience at the elite level," Kindler said. "There was a lot of pushing, and there was a lot of encouragement."
Vise is a product of the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas, the gym that produced the past two Olympic all-around champions, Carly Patterson in 2004 and Nastia Liukin in 2008.
Vise was on top of the gymnastics world in 2003. At the World Championships, then-15-year-old Vise helped the United States win a team gold and won a share of the gold on bars with teammate Chellsie Memmel. That seemed to clear a path for Vise to the 2004 Athens Games.
But Vise was diagnosed with a compressed disc in her back early in 2004 and withdrew from the national championships in June that year. She was able to perform on the bars and beam at the Olympic Trials three weeks later, but back pain forced her to scale down her routines. At the final Olympic team selection camp a few weeks later, Vise fell off the beam in her last routine of the camp.
She was crushed when she didn't hear her name called as the team was announced live on national television.
"The whole world saw me when I realized that all my dreams went down the drain," Vise said.
Liukin knew that was a big blow for Vise. Not only did Vise endure the disappointment of not making the Olympics, but she watched Patterson, her close friend, become an instant celebrity by winning the all-around gold. Vise and Patterson trained alongside each other several years leading to the 2004 Games. Though Liukin trained with another group, she knows both very well.
"I was with her in the gym every single day and saw how much effort and how much determination she put into it," said Liukin, a longtime friend of Vise. "To see her come up from a little short must have been real hard for her."
Vise decided to take a break. It was supposed to be for a month or so, but then she withdrew from an overseas competition in early 2005.
There were times when I asked myself, 'Can I really come back from this?'
"In my eyes, [gymnastics] wasn't the same," Vise said. "I just needed a break. I wanted to try new things and live life a little."
Vise didn't resurface on the gymnastics scene until more than a year later.
She signed with Oklahoma in February 2006 under former Sooners coach Steve Nunno, who resigned shortly after signing day. Vise said Nunno wanted her to compete just on the beam in exchange for a full scholarship. That was easy enough for her.
But that deal wouldn't fly with Kindler, who arrived at Oklahoma in the fall of 2006.
"I'm not a ride-the-wave kind of gal," Kindler said. "We let her know that just doing the balance beam would be doing her and the team a disservice because she was such a talented athlete."
Although Kindler had never met Vise before she arrived at Oklahoma, she was well aware of her credentials as a bars and beam specialist. Kindler couldn't believe Vise didn't want to compete in an event in which she owned a world championship.
But Kinder didn't realize how far Vise had fallen. She could no longer do the simplest maneuvers on the bars.
"She couldn't have done them, even if you had paid her a million dollars," Kindler said.
"I was almost embarrassed because the last time a lot of these girls had seen me I was potentially going to be in the Olympics," Vise said. "There were times when I asked myself, 'Can I really come back from this?' I knew deep down that if I put in the work, I could. But man, sometimes, it was so hard."
Kindler said if Vise was going to pull through, she was going to have to redefine what success was.
"For her to have failed in that ultimate goal in her life was tragic for her," Kindler said. "She had to have a different expectation level. She had to reinvent the wheel and realize that she had a lot to offer."
Fellow junior Kristin Smith said the team rallied around the former world champion.
"It's been motivating to see what she's gone through," Smith said. "It's pushed us even more and has brought us all together."
The process of building herself back up has given Vise a renewed appreciation for gymnastics. The fact she trains about half the amount she did when she was in peak form has helped. Now that she has more time for school and friends, Vise said she could never put herself through the rigors of Olympic training again.
And when she catches up with Patterson and Liukin, the subject is rarely about gymnastics. That suits Vise just fine.
"I still love gymnastics, but it doesn't define my life anymore," Vise said. "I just feel like a normal person."
David Hinojosa is a contributor to ESPN.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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