She may not be competing anymore, but she is definitely still a vital part of the team.
After back injuries during her sophomore year forced Emily Shugan to end her career as a gymnast, the senior has since leaped into a new role on the team: student assistant coach.
The Bridgewater, N.J. native was a standout at the high school level, helping her team to multiple county and conference championships and being named Central Jersey, Section 2 Gymnast of the Year her senior year.
She continued to shine on the mat at the college level, competing in 10 of Penn’s 11 meets her freshman year. She was also instrumental in the Quakers’ Ivy Classic team title in 2015, where she posted a career-high score of 9.800 on bars, the team’s highest score in that competition.
However, things began to take a turn for the worse the following season.
“My sophomore year was when I started having back pain. I didn’t necessarily know what it was for a while, so I just tried to work through it,” Shugan said.
At the Ivy Classic during her sophomore year, she would step onto the mat for the last time as a competitor.
“In the middle of my bar routine, something pulled in my back and I pretty much had to be carried off the mat,” she recalled.
The results were heartbreaking: a herniated disc and a condition called degenerative disc disease, the result of a lifetime’s worth of training in the gym.
Watching from off the mat, then-freshman Nicole Swirbalus saw Shugan’s final moments on the bars as character-defining.
“I will never forget that even when she hurt her back in the middle of the routine, she still finished and it was almost perfect, and I really think that just goes to show her strength and how much she cares about the team,” Swirbalus said.
Despite this setback, Shugan still searched for a way to continue with the team. But when faced with a difficult choice — have spine surgery and attempt to return to competition, end her career as an athlete but stay around the program, or walk away from Penn gymnastics altogether — she knew what she had to do.
“It was a hard decision, but there wasn’t a question in my mind whether I wanted to stay involved with the team or not. It’s a huge part of my life; I love the girls and coaches, and it’s who I am at Penn,” Shugan said. "It was very hard for me to drop the athlete role, but there was no question that I wanted to stick around for the rest of it."
This determination led her to pursue her current role on the team as a student assistant coach. When the coaches heard of her intentions, they were more than eager to welcome her to the staff.
“When you’ve been in gymnastics for that long, it's very hard to walk away, especially when it wasn’t by choice,” coach John Ceralde said. “She came to us and still wanted to be involved, and stepped into that role pretty easily.”
Although she cannot make a direct impact on the mat anymore, her caring and supportive presence is felt by both the team and the coaching staff. She is always there for help when the gymnasts need it and they appreciate her selfless attitude and commitment to the team.
“Even though she’s not doing gymnastics anymore, she knows everything about it,” sophomore Caroline Mitsch said. “She knows exactly what we’re going through and exactly what can help us, and her ability to do that for us is extraordinary.”
“If I need more motivation at practice or if I’m having a bad day I can always turn to her for a pump-up speech or some extra corrections, so that’s really helpful for me,” Swirbalus added.
What really makes Shugan stand out is her passion for the sport and sense of duty to help those around her. She knows while she cannot compete anymore, she still has the opportunity to improve the performances of the girls on the team.
“She’s the first one every day to ask what we need, and I think that’s really important for the team as a group; everyone’s learned a lot from her,” said senior captain Kyra Levi, who is also one of Shugan's housemates.
As for her relationship with her former teammates, Shugan has worked to keep it unchanged from when she competed. On the other hand, to supplement her new role on the team, she now functions as a liaison between the gymnasts and the coaching staff and collaborates with each.
“I think it’s better to be approachable and I felt like my role would be more beneficial if I had as much access as possible to both the coaches and the team, so I try to keep my relationship with the girls pretty much the same,” she said.
She also touched on her unique relationship with the newer members of the team.
“I find it hard sometimes to set an example because I don’t compete or practice with them anymore, so I can’t help them in that way,” she said. “But what I can do and what we always emphasize is attitudes. I do my best to be positive and ask people what they need and contribute in that way.”
Shugan’s steadfast efforts for the team lead everyone around her to be changed for the better, and even though her role has changed, her dependable and supportive spirit has not.
Although she is not competing on the mat, she is unstoppable off of it.