After barely cracking the lineup in her freshman season, Alex Robinson had devoted herself to carving out a role on a Maryland gymnastics team set to be full of new faces in her sophomore year.
Floor was Robinson’s best event, and with just three members of that lineup set to return, she was poised to step into the spotlight.
A week before the start of the season, though, those hopes came crashing down. Robinson attempted to land a double pike — part of her improved floor routine — but instead, she crumpled to the mat.
“She was actually doing awesome,” senior Megan McClelland said. “She was going to be in floor lineup — she was killing it.”
An MRI showed Robinson had torn her ACL, starting a long road to recovery that robbed her of her sophomore and junior seasons.
As a senior, however, Robinson has emerged as the key component she had expected to be two years earlier. And Friday, the Centennial, Colorado, native will get to realize her dream of competing with her team in an NCAA Regional.
“[It’s] been such a blessing for me,” Robinson said. “I thank God every day that I’m able to be a part of that.”
“She was doing so well.”
Robinson’s freshman year was the first that Maryland had missed the postseason under coach Brett Nelligan, and she was determined to get the Terps back to the NCAA tournament.
She had hardly competed for that team, though, struggling in three early-season meets and never returning to competition. She did, however, perform on floor in exhibition.
And with graduations and transfers decimating a squad that had already underperformed, there was a clear opportunity for Robinson to shine as a sophomore, and she wanted to capitalize on it.
“I knew that I wanted to train even harder the next year,” Robinson said. “I worked so hard — I stayed in the gym all summer … I took a class. I wanted to be in the gym and I wanted to make sure that we made it to regionals.”
That made the knee injury she suffered just before the season all the more agonizing.
“My heart broke for her,” McClelland said. “She was doing so well.”
After being on the cusp of seeing her hard work pay off, Robinson was limited to supporting her teammates from the sidelines. She embraced the role. But behind the cheers and high fives, Robinson was shaken.
“The mental part was definitely the hardest,” Robinson said. “Even [at] the beginning of this year when I was still a lot better … I still felt at times [like] ‘I need to quit. This is too much.’”
A prolonged recovery
ACL tears typically take six months to a year to heal after surgery. Robinson’s recovery process, however, was lengthier, because she had to reconstruct her gymnastics repertoire.
It would be two long years before she returned to competition.
“It was different for me, because I had learned a lot of the skills that I have now at school,” Robinson said. “So it was just really hard getting back and learning those skills again — I had to relearn a kip, that’s the easiest skill in gymnastics. It [was] just really tough.”
Even as her physical strength returned, Robinson still dealt with feelings of uncertainty, fearful her left leg would give out during simple routines. The injury affected her self-confidence, which she found especially difficult to grapple with.
She leaned on her teammates, who reciprocated the positivity she showed them throughout her recovery process.
“There were times when I was feeling [down] and they were like, ‘You have to realize that you have to give yourself grace,’” Robinson said. “‘You did come back from a major injury. … Everyone comes back at their own speed, and you just have to realize that.’”
For Robinson, that meant going back to basics months after having pushed to add as much difficulty to her routines as possible, spending two years on the road back to health.
Meanwhile, Maryland missed the NCAA tournament again in 2017, being the first team left out of the 36-team field. The next season, though, the Terps reached the postseason with an underclassmen-heavy group, which made it unclear what role Robinson might have as a senior.
Buoyed by her teammates’ encouragement, Robinson took massive strides last summer and impressed throughout preseason, putting herself in position to don the bedazzled Maryland leotard for one final season.
“It was easier for me to push out of that leg,” Robinson said. “It was the first time where it felt like, ‘OK, I can do this, I don’t need to give my other leg a little bit more weight than the other one.’ Everything felt right in that moment, and things were starting to click on every event.”
Still, Robinson entered the season as a bit of an afterthought, and she kept her expectations low: her goal was simply to get an exhibition spot on floor.
“I just [wanted] to do my routine one more time,” Robinson said.
“I’m still shocked that my scores count.”
Three meets into the season, Robinson had surpassed that goal.
She was in the floor lineup — not just in exhibition — Feb. 2 against Rutgers and posted a 9.8, which she matched the following week against Ohio State.
“I was really proud of Alex,” Nelligan said following Robinson’s season debut. “She’s coming back from an ACL her sophomore year, and she gets in and gives us a 9.8 on floor. It was a huge moment for the floor lineup.”
Robinson hasn’t left the floor lineup since. And in the next meet, she got the opportunity to truly show her progress.
With juniors Tiara Wright and Alecia Farina both unavailable against Minnesota, Nelligan had to get creative to fill out the bars lineup. He turned to Robinson. She’d been training on bars, but was hardly expecting to compete.
“That whole entire routine I was so nervous — even when I raised my arms to salute,” Robinson said. “I just remembered to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. Even if it was my last time doing bars, I wanted to make it count.”
Robinson proceeded to post a career-best 9.825, propelling the Terps to a season-high showing on the event and ensuring it wasn’t her only bars routine of the season; she’s performed six more times since.
Robinson has followed her strong debuts with consistent scores, never posting below a 9.7 on floor and having just one score below 9.6 on bars.
“Even now, I still am shocked that my scores count,” Robinson said. “To know that my score counts and that I’m a crucial member of the team is really important to me, especially after not being able to [contribute] for two years.”
Robinson’s breakout campaign has helped the Terps finish the regular season ranked No. 28, earning them a spot at regionals. And as the Terps enter into the postseason, Nelligan has emphasized the importance of using the natural nervous energy that comes from participating on such a big stage.
“The nerves are going to be there, no matter what,” Nelligan said. “It’s what you do with them.”
Robinson in particular will have reason to feel nervous. By performing alongside her team at an NCAA Regional, she will accomplish a goal that often seemed unattainable in the years since she went down on that cold winter day her sophomore year.
“It definitely makes me grateful for the experience that I get to have,” Robinson said. “Not being able to do it last year, and having to sit out and watch it. … Now, getting to participate and be a part of the events is really important to me.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of a caption in this story misidentified the event Robinson was performing on. It was uneven bars, not balance beam. The caption has been updated.