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Former Olympic Hopeful Helps Local Gymnasts Achieve their Dreams

On Friday’s edition of Sports Spin, we had the opportunity to speak with local gymnastics coach, Melissa Chavez-White, who was also a 1984 Olympic hopeful for the U.S.A women’s gymnastics team. From trials to triumph, injuries and a near-death experience — you’ll never believe Melissa’s story of perseverance.

After the interview on 600 ESPN El Paso. I took time that afternoon to sit down with Melissa, who is also a former boss of mine when I taught gymnastics at her west side gym. The ten minutes I planned to spend there, turned into well over an hour. Chatting about the parallels between sport and life, the Fab Five winning the gold and the pressures of winning at such a young age. Her take on life is one to look up to. Her conversation left me with a renewed feeling of hope, strength and endurance and I didn’t do more than walk the beam.

After a tragic career-ending accident, Melissa was left with one choice to continue her passion for sports and gymnastics. She opened up her own gym at age 21 and almost 25 years later and thousands of students trained her purpose still holds true.

“I originally opened it up with hopes that someone would follow in my footsteps one day and hopes of them making the Olympic team,” Melissa said.

As a little girl, Melissa watched the television closely as her idols, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, both Olympic gold medalists and pioneers opened her eyes to a whole new world.

“I begged my parents to put me in gymnastics! While it takes most teenage gymnasts a while to hit the elite level — it took me only three years to get to the highest level,” Melissa said.

Dedication is an understatement when it came to her dream of reaching the Olympics. She would work out and practice during the day, on the weekends and most often when people weren’t even in the gym.

“I trained from 10-years-old to 15-years-old. When I was in high school I competed as an elite level gymnast and received a lot of media attention at that time,” Melissa said.

Crystal Dominguez

It wasn’t until she attended Coronado High School to compete in gymnastics, did her close friends even recognize her athletic abilities. But her private coaches did not want her to compete in high school because they were worried Melissa would get injured in high school competition.

“That’s exactly what happened,” Melissa said shaking her head in disappointment.

After doing two double-full twisting back-flips in a row Melissa went too high up and landed with her legs straight causing her to knee to pop backwards and tear her anterior cruciate ligament. She already had an existing ankle injury at the time.

She went through knee surgery and soon after needed to have a second operation as the first didn’t go as planned.  But this time, she found out she was dealing with more than a torn ACL. She says she is fortunate to be here today. In the process, they found out she had a brain tumor. She underwent  brain surgery, instead of knee surgery, because she couldn’t go under anesthesia.

“My hopes and my dreams of the Olympic games were dashed,” Melissa said.

Melissa considers herself a very spiritual and  positive person and believes everything happens for a reason. She said her brain tumor was a gift, not a set back.

“I believe God has a plan. I believe it was Mary Lou Retton’s time in the spotlight in the 1984 games in Los Angeles — not mine,” Melissa said.

When asked on Sports Spin if she would have beat Mary Lou Retton had her injury not have compromised her Olympic debut, without a pause, without a doubt — Melissa said, yes.

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Melissa said there was a bigger plan for her life and a better one at that.

“This opportunity of being giving a second chance at life is worth more than the gold.”

After her tumor was removed, Melissa studied the brain and has applied it to her lessons at the gym. In addition to teaching kids tumbling, she focuses on handicap children and those with autism. Setting goals with motor skills and teaching them to access a part of their brain through gymnastics, which helps aid the brain in the building of neurons. She works with babies of which crawl earlier, walk sooner and tend to avoid the terrible-two’s stage.

“I’ve had some of my students come out of their autism. I don’t just teach gymnastics. I’m teaching children how to develop mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually,” Melissa said.

In her gym she has a mission statement:
“Winning is not everything. But the steps you take to get there and the way you treat others along the way is everything.”
Crystal Dominguez

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