March 2014

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61 E mma Willis experienced a renaissance as a gymnast at the University of Iowa. And despite a premature end to her competitive career, the diminutive junior still smiles. She smiles because of her experiences as a Hawk- eye student-athlete. Willis, now an administrative assistant for the UI women's gymnastics team, spoke at the depart- ment of athletics all-staff meeting Feb. 12 in the Feller Club Room inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "As soon as I stepped on campus, it fit," Willis said. "e team was welcoming, the coaches confirmed all my thoughts about them, and the athletic train- ing staff helped me immediately as I went from injury to the best shape I had ever been in aer only a few months of becoming a Hawkeye." Aer her first collegiate competition, Willis was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week. She had been involved in gymnastics since the age of two, but being part of the UI family was different — in a positive way. "Amazing" is how Willis described dancing with teammates during her floor routine, throwing her head back in salute aer sticking a dismount, giving high-fives and hugs. ere are plenty of adjectives that describe Willis: bright (she was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in 2013), personable (when she flashes that smile, it is impossible not to smile back), likeable (she captivated the crowd at the staff meeting for more than 10 minutes). One thing Willis is not is injury free. ere was an elbow injury around the time of the Senior Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, a knee injury 14 months later, another knee injury before the Elite Canada competition followed by elbow injury No. 2. "Somewhere along the line I lost my love of gym- nastics," Willis said. "My coaches and I had be- come strangers and my passion for the sport I had committed 17 years of my life began to fade." She took time off from school and sport. Her desire to compete eventually returned, and aer contemplating several scholarship offers, Willis ac- cepted an invitation to become a Hawkeye. "My commitment and respect for (UI head coach) Larissa (Libby) was incredibly strong," Willis said. "Everything fell into place." Willis completed the 2012 season. Before her sophomore year of 2013, Willis tore meniscus in both knees. She knew another surgery and another comeback were needed. Aer competing in the all-around eight times in 2013, Willis' worn-out body surrendered. So, instead of swinging from bars, flipping on floor, or bounding on vault, Willis has evolved into more of a student-assistant coach. "As I went through this hard time, the amazing people around me didn't let me give up," Willis said. "I was not treated differently or looked down on. My role was simply changed. Because of them I may have lost the gymnast, but I didn't lose the gymnastics." A journalism major, Willis will also receive a cer- tificate in human rights and philanthropy, with a minor in French. She wants to work with children in a nonprofit setting. Wherever Willis lands, the University of Iowa — and the people working there — will always hold a special place in her heart. "You never know where the wind will blow, and regardless of where I end up, I will always be able to call this place home," she said. UI Experience Regenerates Willis By Darren Miller

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