A gymnastics routine shares some of the same characteristics as a roller-coaster ride.
The twists. The inversions. The sense that things might be spinning out of control just before they come down to a firm, stable landing.
That’s the plan, anyway.
There is very little about LSU gymnast Lexie Priessman’s career that has gone according to plan. Not long ago, she was on the verge of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, so close, to borrow a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, that she could hardly fail to grasp it.
Everything happens for a reason. That’s what Priessman has had to tell herself so many times, through disappointments and setbacks and a total of eight gymnastics-related surgeries, that she had the phrase tattooed on the inside of her left wrist.
Somehow, Priessman’s injuries haven’t punctured her positive attitude and love for her sport.
She learned to embrace the roller-coaster ride.
“A straight roller coaster wouldn’t be any fun,” Priessman said earlier this week as the No. 3-ranked Tigers prepared for Friday’s meet at No. 24 Missouri (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). “I still wish I could say I would have gone to the world championships or the Olympics. Even though there are times I look back and wish things would have gone differently, that I didn’t have to go through all these surgeries, as a person I’ve grown so much.
“They really have changed who I am. Without adversity, life wouldn’t be any fun.”
Priessman and gymnastics found each other at age 3, when she started tumbling around a gym back home in Cincinnati with her twin sister, Leah. By the time Priessman was 5, a coach noticed her talent and approached her mother about joining what was called a Talent Opportunity Program (TOP).
“I thought she was crazy,” Vickie Priessman recalled. “I wasn’t bringing my daughter to the gym at 6 a.m. every day.”
Leah wasn’t interested in a track in elite gymnastics. But Lexie wouldn’t be deterred.
“I held off until she was 7,” Vickie said. “Then I gave in.”
“You can tell at an early age that they love gymnastics,” said Mary Lee Tracy, Lexie’s coach in Cincinnati through most of her junior gymnastics days. “Lexie had tons of energy, loved to flip and swing and always had a smile on her face. She had a zest for athletics.”
Lexie moved up quickly through the ranks, Tracy said, often advancing a level each year. By 2010 she won the prestigious Nastia Liukin Cup, and a year later she was on the U.S. national team, competing in places like Italy, Germany, Japan and El Salvador.
Too young by a month to compete in the 2012 London Olympics, Priessman’s plan was to put off enrolling at Georgia by a year so she could compete in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. But by then, injuries began to mount.
First, Priessman needed surgery to repair ligaments she tore in a toe making a balance beam dismount. Then there were two surgeries to repair a broken left ankle, followed by operations on both labrums, the lining of the shoulder socket. Priessman’s Olympic dreams were dashed, and she was devastated.
“There were plenty of times I would just sit in my room and cry by myself,” Priessman said. “I would just lay in bed and start to cry; I wanted it so bad.”
It was time for a new plan. Recruited to Georgia when Jay Clark was the coach there, Priessman decided to consider LSU when Clark moved on to become an assistant under LSU coach D-D Breaux.
“Jay had been recruiting her since she was little,” Vickie Priessman said, “ and Lexie always had LSU as her second choice. One day we were driving, and she said, ‘Mom, do you care if I take a visit to LSU?’ I said, ‘It’s about time.’ In her heart I knew she wanted to do that.
“As soon as she got on campus, I knew this was where she was going to go. They treated her like family.”
Unfortunately, the injuries followed Priessman to Baton Rouge. She’s had two surgeries on her right knee in college as well as one on her right wrist. Somehow, she found a way to persevere. Priessman won the Southeastern Conference uneven bars title despite competing on torn knee cartilage, then went on to the NCAAs, where she earned All-American honors in the event.
The offseason wrist and knee surgeries were supposed to slow Priessman down, but she worked her way back into competition anyway.
“She’s a tough cookie,” Vickie Priessman said. “She trained on a torn labrum for a year. Never complained. Her pain tolerance is unbelievable.”
LSU coaches brought Priessman along slowly this season, allowing her to compete only on vault and bars. But at home last Friday against No. 6 Kentucky, Priessman returned to compete on floor for the first time in nearly a year.
She said she couldn’t hear the crowd, just Breaux reminding her to breathe. By the time Priessman spun through the air and stuck the landing on her final tumbling pass, Breaux and LSU gymnast McKenna Kelley, out for the season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, grabbed each other in a joyful embrace.
“As soon as I finished that pass on floor, I had tears in my eyes,” Priessman said. “It was fun. I had a smile on my face. It felt really good.”
Priessman acknowledged earlier this season she will never be 100 percent again as a gymnast, and she wonders at 21 how she might feel physically 30 years from now.
For now, though, things are better than they’ve been in a long time. That’s fortunate for LSU, which needs Priessman in as many events as possible if the Tigers are going to be a national-championship contender.
“It feels good to do more than one event,” said Priessman, who was limited to only doing bars at the end of the 2017 season. “I’m not in pain anymore. I have aches and pains, but not where it’s not manageable.”
Apparently, the roller coaster is heading up the hill once again.
Team SEC Pct. Overall Pct. High
LSU 4-0 1.000 6-1 .857 197.450
Alabama 3-1 .750 3-2 .600 196.725
Florida 2-1 .667 4-1 .800 198.150
Kentucky 2-2 .500 5-2 .714 196.950
Georgia 2-2 .500 2-3 .400 197.000
Auburn 1-3 .250 2-5 .286 197.000
Missouri 1-3 .250 1-3 .250 196.325
Arkansas 1-4 .200 1-4 .200 197.175
LSU 197.225, Kentucky 196.700
Florida 197.400, Auburn 197.000
Alabama 197.000, Arkansas 196.350
Georgia 197.000, Missouri 195.850
LSU at Missouri, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Alabama at Florida, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Georgia at Kentucky, 6 p.m.
Auburn at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Auburn, N.C. State, Pittsburgh at Texas Woman’s University, 2 p.m.