Chamberlain, Coca make emotional return to Pitt gymnastics

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Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

Katie Chamberlain and Katrina Coca are returning to Pitt gymnastics this season.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

With a deep breath, Pitt junior gymnast Katie Chamberlain began her routine on the uneven bars at the Panthers’ season-opening meet against NC State on Jan. 15. She took a few trips orbiting the high bar before swinging to the lower fixture.

From there, Chamberlain seamlessly weaved flips and turns together, alternating between high and low stages of the bars before dismounting into three mid-air somersaults and landing with a small hop. She paused briefly to find balance, then bolted upright in the cliche — but grand — Y-shaped gymnastics pose that broke the steely demeanor she sported during the routine.

Chamberlain let out a powerful yell and remade her closing pose once more, this time with greater vigor and facing her teammates and coaches. They then swarmed her in a fit of joy. Shortly after, the Panthers reanimated the sidelines in support of their next teammate up. 

Graduate student Katrina Coca, donning a black leotard with “Panthers” spelled out in sparkling, yellow script across her back for the first time, leapt onto the bars. Coca’s routine was deliberate, paced and made use of pauses on top of the bars to show off impressive balance, strength and focus.

When she was done, teammates shared their pride for Coca with fist bumps and jumps of excitement. Meanwhile, Chamberlain embraced team trainer Sean Meuller. Both women were celebrating moments years in the making.

Chamberlain and Coca are both little more than a year removed from devastating lower body injuries, and their return meant that they had reached the end of long, arduous rehabilitation processes.

Coca and Chamberlain showcased brilliant displays of grace and athleticism on the bars that earned strong marks — both averaged a score of 9.875 in their two attempts — from the onlooking judges. But Chamberlain said that it didn’t matter much that she had scored a career best, earned an event title and bolstered her team score in a key dual meet. Just being back in the lineup made it a success.

Coca transferred to Pitt from Kentucky in 2019, after missing the season with an undisclosed injury, and was planning on closing out a successful college career in 2020 with the Panthers. But that plan was quickly derailed when she tore her achilles tendon during the preseason.

“I tore my achilles during the preseason, about the end of September,” Coca said. “It wasn’t anything expected, of course … I transferred here last year. It was definitely difficult coming into a completely new team with a completely new atmosphere and not knowing a lot of people or anything around here.”

Chamberlain was still looking forward to moving past her injury-riddled first-year season with a bounce-back sophomore campaign. But those hopes disappeared when she suffered a torn ACL and meniscus tendon in December 2019 and got surgery in January 2020.

“It was definitely difficult,” Chamberlain said, “because I tore my ACL at a time when I thought I was doing really well and felt a high from how efficient I was in the gym and how much progress I had made since my freshman year.”

But instead of workouts with teammates, Coca and Chamberlain’s injuries meant time on crutches, isolated and struggling to find enough ways to fill a college athletics career-sized hole that now existed in their lives. They had to find ways to keep themselves distracted while their bodies healed. 

Coca used her time to watch movies and play with her two dogs, Ty and Major, while Chamberlain chose to explore cooking, which she said mostly consisted of awkward hobbling around the kitchen. But both were able to fill their time with being two of Pitt gymnastics’ loudest cheerleaders. 

“I think both of us really took to the role of supporter during the season,” Chamberlain said. “Pouring all of our energy into the team and making sure that they had what they needed during the season, that was our priority.”

They became hype-women for their teammates, injecting confidence and kind words wherever they detected self-doubt among the team. 

And while they were there for their teammates, Coca and Chamberlain were there for each other. Given the similar timing and recovery period for their injuries, both Coca and Chamberlain were able to find someone nearby who was experiencing the same injury-induced frustration. 

“Both of us being injured around similar times, I think we were able to lean on each other too,” Coca said. “ We were able to relate to each other … It sucked that two of us were injured but it was very helpful too.”

With their return to competition, Coca and Chamberlain are now able to focus on themselves, and that means creating goals for this season and beyond. While both gymnasts are still savoring the feeling that their first routines left, Chamberlain admits that she is looking forward to strengthening her knee further so she can compete in the vault and beam.

The Panthers have competed once since the NC State meet. They lost 191.600-194.600 to No. 23 Kent State on Sunday, but Chamberlain once again won the bars title while Coca made her first appearance on the vault for Pitt. Both performed in the high beam as well.

Returning to the gym floor brought a flood of relief for two gymnasts that had struggled through long absences that were beyond their control. Coca said by the end of the meet, her emotions proved too much to contain.

“I think it was after the last event of the meet,” Coca said. “I was so happy, so excited to be back in there, I couldn’t help it. I got too excited and I started to tear up a bit. It’s hard to describe it but it’s an absolutely amazing feeling.”

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