GAINESVILLE — When the official results were tallied Saturday and the realization hit Maranda Smith that Florida had won its first SEC gymnastics championship since 2007, one thought came to her mind as the tears flowed.
"It was worth it all," said Smith, 21. "It was worth all the pain. It was worth everything. It was worth every tear, sweat, pain and surgery to experience that with my teammates."
In Smith's case, that's saying a lot.
On her journey to becoming a three-time All-American, the senior from Placerville, Calif., moved 2,700 miles from home and had two major surgeries — both of which could have ended her career.
Instead, she has persevered, overcoming the odds and now providing veteran leadership to a young Gator squad that is ranked No. 4 and preparing for the NCAA Region this weekend in Salt Lake City.
"She is just amazing, and she's been such a leader this entire season," coach Rhonda Faehn said. "She has so much heart. … She's just amazing with her desire and her will. She'll do anything to help this team achieve success."
That desire stems from the fact she nearly lost what she loves most. While a freshman in 2006 at UCLA, Smith landed awkwardly in her first competition, describing the pain as "like my bone was on fire." Although she had suffered from stress fractures for several years, this one was different. It wouldn't heal.
After several months, doctors gave her the option of having a steel rod placed in her right shin, a major procedure with many implications. Smith heard none of them.
"I had no idea," she said while sitting in the O'Connell Center gymnastics practice area Monday. "Really, my thinking was, 'Okay, I'm going to have surgery, they're going to put the rod in and I'll be fine. My mom was like, 'No, Maranda. It's not going to be that easy; this is pretty major surgery.' But I was just so focused on doing gymnastics again, I just blocked that out. And I realized I was wrong the second I opened my eyes after the surgery in the recovery room. I opened my eyes and my dad was sitting next to me, and I started screaming and bawling because my leg hurt so badly."
A gymnast since she was 4 years old, Smith spent months in rehab, learning to wiggle her toes, walk, then run and jump. But by November 2006, she couldn't take anymore. Or so she thought.
She went home, enrolled in Sierra Community College and began working in her club gym — where she yearned to compete again. At the same time, boyfriend Carl Moore was a junior college All-American receiver looking for a place to go. He wanted Florida. Smith decided she did, too. After all, Florida was her second choice when she was coming out of high school.
But getting Florida to want her was a different story. Her skills had diminished from when she was recruited, and she would have to work hard to get them back up to par.
Faehn sensed something in Smith that the videotapes didn't reveal.
"When we discussed her coming to Florida, I wanted to know why she wanted to do it," Faehn said. "What was so important about gymnastics in her life? She had a lot of things she wanted to accomplish, she had a lot of love for the sport that she didn't make use of and had a lot of things she still wanted to do. And that, to me, showed her heart."
Smith arrived in Gainesville in 2008, competing mostly on floor and bar routines, but later that year, an MRI revealed a torn labrum in her right shoulder. She competed all of 2009 in severe pain then had shoulder surgery in April.
"There are athletes who don't come back to gymnastics after that surgery," Faehn said.
Smith isn't one of them. To be able to compete every weekend, she has limited practice sessions during the week. She does not train on the hard floor and only tumbles once a week — on a soft surface. Because she's unable to practice like other gymnasts, much of her preparation is mental.
"Every night before I go to sleep, I visualize the routines on each event and throughout the day I've learned to be able to think about my skills and actually feel what it feels like when I'm doing them," she said. "I've kind of taught my brain how to practice without actually having my body practice."
Smith has been named a second-team All-SEC selection and is a member of the SEC academic honor roll. She led the Gators in the SEC championships with her floor exercise of 9.90, which tied for second overall. She is second among the Gators this season with seven event titles. Faehn, a former gymnast, said what Smith has done is remarkable.
"It's really unbelievable," she said. "I personally couldn't imagine. She came back from (shoulder surgery) and still is in tremendous amounts of pain every day. You can just stand there and watch and see it's hard. … But she trains with so much passion, she loves the sport, she appreciates it so much and she loves this team."
One day, Smith hopes to wake up, throw her legs over the bed and stand without hurting. For now, the pain represents all she has been through to achieve her goals and serves as a reminder that life probably can't hand her anything she can't handle.
"When I look back, I'll know that anything I put my mind to I can achieve," Smith said. "I was told you probably won't be able to do gymnastics again, but I've fought through a lot of pain and made it through. I think this has taught me that anything I want in life, no matter how tough it's going to be, if I want it and my mind wants it, I can achieve it."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.