McKenna Kelley was speechless when she stepped onto the PMAC floor for the first time in two years.
The senior all-arounder missed all of the 2018 season with a torn Achilles tendon. After a 9.90 floor routine in her season debut during LSU’s win over Cal, Kelley walked on and off to deafening cheers from fans and teammates alike with tears in her eyes.
“It was so good, I missed that,” said fellow senior all-arounder Sarah Finnegan. “We love that the crowd is so into it, too. She loves it. It’s really good to have her back.”
Kelley said it brings tears to her eyes to know the adoration LSU fans have for this team and the passion they have for college gymnastics.
“I would catch myself in practices and in the gym, reminding myself what personally I am working for in this comeback — it’s Tiger Nation,” Kelley said. “There’s no better feeling than representing these three letters on my chest.”
After more than a year without competing, Kelley didn’t set any high expectations as she returned for the first time. She was more focused on just hitting her routine rather than being result-oriented. She just wanted to compete and perform the exact same way she had been practicing.
LSU coach D-D Breaux, on the other hand, knew what to expect when Kelley made her return.
“I think the expectation that I had was exactly what I saw transpire,” Breaux said. “There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm and a lot of confidence on her part. Of ‘Hey, I got this.’ She stepped out there and did a great job. To watch her train and see what she does in the gym and to be able to take that to the arena — that’s our job. It’s what coaches aspire to do and she did exactly what she practices.”
It was a long and hard road to recovery for Kelley, who had never gone through a major injury like an Achilles tear, but it wasn’t the rehab process that she struggled with the most. She credits her teams for their focus and support for making the rehab so easy for her, unlike many who suffer the same injury.
Relearning to trust her body in gymnastics - the one place where she had never felt fear — was a new challenge for Kelley.
“I wouldn’t call it a fear, but my concern was to help the team as much as I could and give my senior year my all,” Kelley said. “I know that I’m more than just a floor gymnast. For me, it was a matter of just getting there and being able to provide that for my team.”
Though the process was tough on her personally, it never stopped Kelley from being her usual loud and excited self on the sidelines for her teammates and the team did the same for her during recovery.
Kelley said her injury never altered her overall mindset. Even though she wasn’t competing on the floor, the team still had a job to do and she wanted to be on board with it.
“My faith is huge to me and that definitely played a huge role in this whole process,” Kelley said. “I know that the God that I serve is not going to put me in a situation where it’s for misery. He’s not a God of suffering. With the help of my team and the people that surrounded me, it really kept my spirits up.”
Senior all-arounder Lexie Priessman, who has had nine major surgeries during her gymnastics career, specifically gave Kelley advice on dealing with the recovery process. Kelley said she gained so much respect for one of her best friends through the process and it was cool for her to personally understand what it was like to go through, not one, but nine major surgeries.
“My whole team really surrounded me,” Kelley said. “What I really appreciated is that they didn’t treat me any different. They didn’t throw me any pity parties — like McKenna’s just McKenna. This is my team.”
“I think she handled the adversity, the extreme disappointment, she handled it well and with a lot of maturity,” Breaux said. “Now she’s back in the gym and competing very hard in practice to try to get into more than just one event, and she’s handling that really well, too. As we progress through the season, I’d like to think that we’ll see her in three events and not just one — beam, vault and floor.”
It’s reaffirming and rewarding for Kelley to know that Breaux and her teammates recognize how she’s pushed through the injury with that maturity and that they have so much trust in her coming back.
As she continues into her senior season, Kelley is raising her expectations for herself as she wants to help LSU win its first national championship.
“I am a bit hard on myself, so I did expect myself to be competing,” Kelley said. “However realistic that was or not, that is something I put on myself. I really just want to go out there and hit it for my team. I mean Tiger Nation has been the reason and the motivation to get back, because we have fans like no other.”