Lexi Mills overcomes compartment syndrome to succeed for Arizona gymnastics

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Emily Gauci | The Daily Wildcat

Arizona gymnast Lexi Mills performs her bar routine during Arizona's 196.425-196.000 win against California in McKale Center on Feb. 28. Mills has overcome compartment syndrome to succeed for the Wildcats this season.

At the beginning of her collegiate career, Arizona gymnast Lexi Mills said she was told she would never be able to compete in the floor event again. She battled constant pain in her shins that both coaches and doctors couldn’t quite figure out how to diagnose, which is why she was unable to compete in an event she loves.

This past season, the Arizona Athletics training staff and athletic trainer Stephanie Gross discovered Mills was suffering from compartment syndrome.

“It’s basically a small little compartment in there, and when I do [physical] activity, it fills up with fluid and causes pain,” Mills said. “They went into my shin and sliced that fascia, and now it can open up more so it doesn’t hurt as much to do things.”

Throughout her time at Arizona, Mills has been a dual-event athlete, competing on the uneven bars and the balance beam. But with the pain in her leg, she was unable to participate consistently in that third event of floor. The diagnosis was only recently made.

“It was like a relief in a way,” Arizona gymnastics coach Bill Ryden said. “These girls beat up their bodies, and they understand that going in. It’s a part of the game. All they really want to know is, when they have a problem, what is it? Having this hanging question mark over your head is incredibly frustrating, because she is an ideal patient. She did everything that the training room asked her to do and yet was seeing no relief.”

After going through rehab and surgery, Mills needed to get into floor shape, since she was months behind everyone else. In the sixth meet of the season against Oregon State, Ryden inserted Mills into the floor lineup, and she has since become a staple for the Wildcats on floor. In the Wildcats’ last meet against California, Mills nailed her career high of 9.925.

“Being on the event now is amazing; I can’t even put that into words,” Mills said. “When you’ve been a gymnast your whole life … being told you would never be able to do floor again — especially me, I love to perform … it was one of my biggest things in club — coming back and being able to show that off again … is the greatest feeling.”

Ryden echoed those words and has been impressed with Mills’ work ethic throughout her career.

“She’s an incredibly hard worker,” Ryden said. “She’s quiet in the gym; she does everything you ask her. She’s a typical gymnast: She’s hard on herself, because coaches as well as gymnasts are always looking for perfection. … She’s very good at knowing how far she can push herself but still [knowing] that she has to do enough to be fully prepared.”

Mills grew up in Frisco, Texas, and competed for eight years with the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, one of the most prestigious gymnastics clubs in the U.S. The club is coached by Valeri Liukin, who was a gold and silver medalist at the 1988 Olympic Games, and Yevgeny Marchenko, who was a five-time World Champion in Sport Acrobatics.

“I have watched a lot of great gymnasts,” Mills said. “I come from WOGA, so I got to watch Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson, Holly Vise and all of the great Olympic athletes. That was big for me, because I got to look at them and be like, ‘Wow, I want to perform like them.’ That’s what I try to do when I do floor — I just try to be as graceful as possible.”

Although Mills is only a junior, she knows how quickly her college experience will go by and said she is prepared to step up.

“It goes so fast,” Mills said. “I feel like I was a freshman yesterday, but I’ve grown a lot [from] coming in as a freshman until now. I love my team, so I’m willing to do whatever it takes to step up and play that leadership role.”

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