TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If you knew the story, you understood the smile.
When the University of Alabama recently went pointed-toe to pointed-toe against visiting Auburn, senior Ari Guerra had a career night with the Crimson Tide.
Competing in three events against the school’s biggest rival, she went from posting a 9.95 on vault, to matching it on uneven parallel bars and then again on floor exercise.
Not only did she win all three events, but her personal-best scores led to season-high team marks on all three as well.
“When I saw the 9.95, I just started tearing up,” Guerra said before going into the specifics of trying to hit the handstand part of her bars routine, a requirement for achieving that high of a score.
“Finally seeing that was a huge reward for me and I just want to keep pushing and keep fighting.”
The hard work and accomplishment would have made a good story by itself, especially after she was named the SEC Specialist of the Week.
Crimson Tide fans have become accustomed to her powerful passes on the floor exercise, the spinning dismount on the bars or even her now-trademark vault which, for reasons that will become apparent, is like no one else’s at the collegiate level.
As a top competitor she could be the subject of a physics lecture in any of her events; a real-life demonstration of acceleration, torque and energy all balled up in to one.
But if none of that doesn’t make your jaw drop, this will: She’s doing it with four screws in her back.
“Resilient would be the word,” coach Dana Duckworth said in describing the senior team leader from Texas. “I’ve never seen anyone so resilient.”
At one point with her back injury, Guerra couldn’t walk. The surgical procedure she endured was so extensive her recovery didn't last weeks. Or months. It lasted years.
Yet, on Friday night she’ll be leading Alabama into its final regular season meet of the season when it visits No. 1 Oklahoma. Coming off its two best meets, the Crimson Tide hopes to continue building toward the postseason, which begins next week at the SEC Championships in New Orleans.
“It’s definitely been worth it,” Guerra said.
Guerra’s back issues go back to long before she joined the Crimson Tide, and developed when she was performing at the elite level with Texas Dreams Gymnastics. She had been cleared by her doctor for Junior Olympic competition in 2013 with hopes of making the national team, only to have to shelve them.
“I had four breaks in my back, two in the L3 and two in the L4, and basically it like detached the back portion and the front portion was slipping out of alignment,” she said about the spinal segment where some people experience lumbar herniated discs.
“I had already rested and recovered from my first back injury and it got worse when I went back six months later.”
The procedure was performed by Texas-based doctor Mark Wylie, who didn’t shut the door on her career, in part because he knew if anyone could come back from it and compete again it would take someone with the right attitude and approach. Someone like Guerra.
However, the rehab would be long, slow and arduous.
First she had to basically relearn how to walk, and then build back up just to handle everyday things. Only once her strength had returned could she begin to try simple gymnastics moves such as a cartwheel, but very carefully.
“The recovery process was very emotional,” Guerra said. “It was very up and down. There was a lot of times when I didn’t think I’d get to where I was now. I couldn’t walk for a while. I couldn’t like condition. I’d sit in the gym and watch and move my arms, and that was about it for several, several months.”
Making matters worse was that Guerra didn’t know anyone who had gone through a similar surgery and recovery and returned to compete. There was no template to go by, and no one with whom to share the experience.
It took two years for her to compete again. During Alabama’s 2016 home opener against Missouri the freshman was inserted into the lineup on floor exercise and scored 9.90.
The steps continued. She added uneven bars and this year it was vault after assistant coach Bill Lorenz taught her a different way to do her approach that had the same degree of difficulty in scoring but would be less physically stressful.
Specifically, what everyone else does is called a Yurchenko-style vault. It entails doing a round-off (which redirects the horizontal speed up in order to jump higher) onto the springboard and a back handspring onto the vault. From there the gymnast performs a salto, ranging in difficulty from a simple tuck to a triple-twist layout.
“My vault you do the same thing, a round-off punch on the floor, but you do a half-on on to the vault, so you do a half-turn,” Guerra said.
“I don’t think anybody in the NCAA competes with my vault in particular, with the half-on, half-off.”
Guerra scored a career-best 9.900 on the vault at the Tuscaloosa Regional, which Alabama won going away.
“The first time she did a vault, it had been four years since she last competed in vault,” Duckworth said. “The first time she did a floor routine was two years after her back surgery. I cried like a baby.
“When she did the vault I didn’t have tears, I had such happiness that she beat the odds.”
A gynnastics journey coming to a close
Both in and out of the gymnastics locker room, Guerra comes across as fun, hardworking and definitely outgoing. She’s the kind of person who will see a young girl by herself and not only go over and talk but maybe give her something that was only meant for the team.
Between that and the way she competes, Guerra’s been a fan favorite for years.
“Ari is the one who’s bubbly and smiling,” said former Alabama gymnast Kiana Winston, who won the Paul W. Bryant Award as Alabama’s top female student-athlete for 2017-18. “Her smile lights up a whole room. You can tell that she is the positive energy that she brings, she’s an extrovert.
“You can thrive on her energy.”
Alabama will try and do so again during this final few meets of her career, which Alabama hopes will culminate at the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 19-20. Currently ranked ninth in the nation by the College Gymnastics Association, the Crimson Tide will need to keep improving its scores to make the first four-team semifinals.
Yet no one doubts Alabama’s determination, especially from one of its leaders. Guerra is still anything but pain-free.
“There are certain skills in gymnastics that cause more anguish than others, and of course there are days I’m sure when her back is bothering her,” said her father, Mark Guerra, who is very proud but tries to remain humble about his daughter’s accomplishments.
“It’s been a quite a journey for her.”
A previous version of this story was posted on SEC Country.