From battling multiple injuries to losing her last season to COVID-19, senior gymnast Darby Nelson has endured hardships over the course of her gymnastics career. Yet, she continues to set a positive example for her teammates and the young kids she coaches at home.
What started in a mommy-and-me gymnastics coordination class blossomed into a lifelong commitment. Nelson is no stranger to success, including qualifying to Level 10 Junior Olympic National Championships in 2016 and 2017. At Penn, she competed in floor, vault, and beam, and finished as runner-up on the beam in last year's Ivy Classic victory.
“The passion was always there," Nelson said. "I wanted to be great at what I did and that was in gymnastics.”
However, Nelson’s path hasn’t been completely smooth. She underwent her first surgery at the age of eight for a supracondylar fracture in her elbow. Since then, she had three more elbow surgeries because of issues with her cartilage and bone.
“With each of the surgeries it was three months of absolutely nothing: no running, no jumping, no impact, and then building up from there,” Nelson said. “From start to finish I would have surgery in around May and then I would be able to put my arm down again at the end of October or early November.”
Despite the pain, Nelson continued to practice. When her arm was immobile, she continued to work on skills and routines that didn’t require the use of her upper body.
“It was a good amount of time to take off, but even through that whenever I wasn't able to pull my arm down, I did gymnastics without my hands,” Nelson said. “I mostly focused on skills like that, stayed in shape and kept going.”
Penn coach Kirsten Becker said that when recruiting Nelson, she was drawn to that perseverance.
“She really is relentless about it and doesn't want to stop until she’s got it right,” Becker said. “The only way that you can really get better is if you're that determined, and she truly embodies that.”
While Nelson has always been driven to succeed, Becker has seen Nelson grow and mature in other ways over the past four years.
“She was very quiet coming in,” Becker said. “I think over the last four years she's really opened up a lot and shown her personality more. She still has those hard working qualities, but I think she has learned to enjoy things even more.”
Nelson opted to stay home for the fall semester. In addition to training, she coached four- and five-year-olds at a gym in her hometown. For Nelson, teaching these kids and seeing their infinite amount of energy and joy for the sport helped her persevere through the difficulties of a virtual semester and tough trainings.
“When you get older your drive and your love and passion kind of starts to fade away a little bit,” Nelson said. “It's always there, but you don't see it as much because you start to hurt or things aren't as fun. But I think they really put the love of the sport back in me and made me realize that this is all fun. You're supposed to do it because you love it.”
Coaching young athletes will be the main way that Nelson keeps gymnastics in her life after she graduates. However, she has been mentoring since before she started working at this gym. Junior Libby Garfoot has known Nelson since they were in high school and feels that Nelson has played a key role in fostering openness on the team.
“She has totally come out of her shell and become one of the greatest leaders on the team,” Garfoot said. “As Darby has gone up through the ranks, she's made sure every single person has a voice on the team. She really focused on prioritizing our mental health and made sure that people know that they are a person first and gymnast second, because in gymnastics that's often hard to separate.”
Garfoot said that Nelson’s commitment to prioritizing the people’s mental health has had a positive impact on the happiness of the team as a whole.
“She probably gets more excited about your accomplishments than you do,” Garfoot said. “That is something I always appreciate because I think a lot of people are their own biggest critics. Darby counters that and is your number one fan.”
Upon graduating from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Nelson will start working full time. As she prepares for the next phase of her life, she has been reflecting on her time at Penn. She appreciates the mentorship she has received from her coaches and has high hopes for the team’s future.
“Every single gymnast on the team has helped me in a different way, whether that's seeing a new perspective or helping on a skill or routine,” Nelson said. “I hope they continue to trust in each other and build on their skills, build on everything that they have.”
Becker said that she will miss the positivity and goofiness that Nelson brings to the team. She hopes that Nelson is able to take some time for herself and appreciate the success she has met with during her time on Penn gymnastics.
“She has a broader perspective on things now than she did when she was 18 years old,” Becker said. “I just want her to enjoy it and give herself some time to relax and really just admire everything she's accomplished.”
While Nelson’s ending on Penn gymnastics is bittersweet, her fondness for her teammates and love for the young kids she coaches is unwavering.