Hornbeek proves doctors wrong with trip to NCAAs
Wildcat File Photo
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Redshirt junior Heidi Hornbeek performs on the bars earlier this season at McKale Center. Hornbeek was the only Wildcat to qualify and compete at the 1999 NCAA Championships.
She was told her career was over. She was a collegiate gymnast, but an injury to her shoulder left her unable to lift her hand above her head, let alone boost herself into an handstand.
The surgery she needed had been performed only once in the world. And she was given only a 50 percent recovery rate to have "normal" use of her shoulder. Gymnastics was supposedly out of the question.
Despite all that, UA junior redshirt Heidi Hornbeek had the surgery, and a year later stood tall and proud as the only Wildcat to qualify and compete at the 1999 NCAA Championships.
"It was scary," Hornbeek said of the surgery. "But I already knew I couldn't do anything as it presently stood, so I took the chance and I hoped for the best.
"And the more they told me I wouldn't be able to be a gymnast, the more determined I became to prove them wrong."
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UA head coach Billy Ryden said it was never confirmed how Hornbeek injured her shoulder. All that was known is that the upper bone was broken, or at least detached from the rest of the body.
"I was watching a person who was a great gymnast not even be able to lift her arm," Ryden said. "But her opinion on the whole take was I'll show you I can still do it - and you've got to respect that."
Hornbeek took what was supposed to be a comeback year and turned it into a championship season.
"Her role was to just do her job," Ryden said. "There were no demands on her to lead the team. Her job was to try to be back to the old Heidi, the gymnast."
Hornbeek exceeded just doing her job as she traveled as the lone Wildcat to the NCAA Championships in Salt Lake City Saturday and brought back a sixth place finish on the beam and eighth place on the uneven bars.
"I just did the routines like I always do," Hornbeek said.
Hornbeek competed in the rotation with gymnasts from Pacific 10 Conference leader UCLA and was named to a first team All-American in both events.
"It was really hard for me to be the only one from the UA," she said. "I missed the team unity.
"It felt weird because I'm always watching the whole team and basing everything off how we each do, and this time I was depending on my individual performance in a way I wasn't used to."
Hornbeek first became a Wildcat in 1996 after graduating from Ironwood High School in Glendale, Ariz. In her high school years she competed with the Arizona Sunrays club team, where her coach Dan Witenstein was a close friend of Ryden's.
"Bill knew me since when I first started gymnastics around nine," Hornbeek said.
She went to Arizona when her other choices of Stanford and Alabama did not pan out as being both equally balanced in academics and athletics.
"Something just clicked with Arizona," Hornbeek said. "The athletic program was great and I loved the coaches to death and overall the program seemed like it would work the best."
Hornbeek immediately went to work in the performance areas as a freshman, setting team records in the all-around with a 39.700 at the Midwest Regionals, sparked by a perfect 10.0 on vault. She repeated that individual score on the floor exercise at the NCAA Championships that year, as well as picking up personal-best scores on bars (9.950) and beam (9.900), making her the highest-scoring gymnast in Wildcat history.
"Mentally, Heidi knows how to compete and rise to the occasion," Ryden said.
In her sophomore year, Hornbeek competed as the most consistent scorer on the team, but this consistency came to a halt as she was sidelined her junior year with the shoulder injury.
"One of the big positives about Heidi is she really loves the sport," Ryden said. "It can get negative with this sport that by college you burn-out, but she still loves it even though she is a fifth year competitor.
"She is a tireless worker and despite that this sport is so demanding on many when you compete for so many years, she still wants to do it."
Hornbeek will return to the team next year for her last year of competition, although she has already completed her academic aspect of college in three years with a major in physiology sciences. She will continue with the athletic full load the rest of this semester as well as next year in a declared undergraduate in general biology, that she might change to ecology and evolutionary biology, she said.
"After this next year, I'm done with gymnastics," Hornbeek said. "My body is saying no more."
Hornbeek plans to establish a career, after medical school, in orthopedic surgery. But before that, she plans on having some fun next year in her last season as a Wildcat.
"I am going to go out and have a great time," she said. "I am going to throw in some big tricks. I'm not going to look at the winning and competition as much because I think the tricks are more fun than the all-around competition."
Ryden supports Hornbeek's future goal.
"I think the NCAAs have brought her back renewed," he said. "I think now Heidi can look in the mirror and say, 'Now I'm back and I know I can do it.'
"There's going to be bigger and better gymnastics coming from her."
Kate Longworth can be reached at Kate.Longworth@wildcat.arizona.edu