Of course no team can win a National Championship without outstanding talent. But there is more to winning than just talent and team chemistry. Some people believe that there has to be a tradition of winning. But winning has to come first; the tradition follows.
So what other factors play into winning consistently? Self-fulfilling prophecy is accepted by sports psychologists as a major factor in success. People envision attainment of their goals, and their visions inspire them to achieve objectives. The confidence, not arrogance, shown by inspired athletes is contagious. So entire teams can develop a sense of self-fulfilling prophesy, not so much because of tradition but because they know how to BELIEVE.
The story of Heather Stepp and the 1993 National Championship team is the best illustration I’ve seen of an athlete’s individual self-fulfilling prophecy’s inspiring and influencing a team’s self-fulfilling prophecy.
The story starts back in the middle of the 1991 season. Our team was competing against Utah in Salt Lake City. Heather Stepp, one of our top all-arounders, was warming up before the meet, doing a front handspring, front pike timer over the vaulting horse. She over- rotated the front handspring when she came off the horse and stuck her arm out to keep from landing on her head. As she put her hand down her elbow cracked. It was awful! She was taken off the floor by the Utah medical people, but we wanted her to see Dr. Dan Moye, back in Athens, because we knew he is one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country. We didn’t know the extensiveness of the injury, but we knew it was bad, so Heather was flown back to Athens.
Back home in Athens, Curt Gelfand, a member of Dr. Moye’s medical team, said, “It was a mess --- typically career ending. Our first thoughts were not gymnastics, but to get her a usable elbow.” A screw was inserted to reattach the ulna collateral ligament. All of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments were torn away. She was told she had only a 5% chance of getting her arm straight again, let alone regaining the hyperextension required for gymnastics.
Heather had to make a decision. If the arm was put in a cast, healing pain would be diminished, but her gymnastics career would be over; because the faster she began rehab, the better chance she would have of doing gymnastics again. But without the cast the pain would be excruciating and the rehab long. And even then the doctors could not assure her she could do gymnastics again.
I met with Heather in her hospital room the evening before the morning of the surgery. She must make that decision before the surgery. Heather and I talked through the options. Finally she looked at me through tear filled eyes and said with as much determination as I’ve ever seen in her rigid expression, “I came to Georgia to be on a National Championship team, and I’m not leaving without being on one!” No Cast! She had made her decision and her prophecy.
It became Heather’s mission to regain all of her gymnastics and more. Her boyfriend (now husband), Matt McCormick made it his mission to help her. He attended her physical therapy sessions and became her “personal trainer,” working with her every day. Even walking on campus Heather carried a heavy weight with the injured arm, helping pull it straight.
Heather’s recovery was miraculous. She was able to compete at a higher level than before the injury. She end up tying for the individual championship on vaulting in 1992, the apparatus on which the injury occurred. Not surprisingly, she won the Honda Inspiration Award for her courageous performance throughout the season. The team went undefeated right up to Super Six at the National Championships, when we finally had an uncharacteristic bars performance and came in second to what may have been Utah’s best team ever.
Time was running out. Heather would face her senior year in 1993 without fulfilling that prophecy.
In 1993, Heather’s determination was contagious. The entire team was invincible, in practices and competitions. We were the first team in the history of college gymnastics to go undefeated throughout the season, winning the National Championship with an unbelievable 198.00 score. Heather’s prophecy was fulfilled. She added a personal exclamation point winning both the vaulting and floor exercise individual national championships.
So I’ve witnessed it first hand. Championship teams DO believe it’s in their destiny to win, no matter what they have to overcome.
Championship teams BELIEVE!