Sports Medicine
Patient Stories | Rachel's Story

Rachel Gains Strength and Confidence from Physical Therapy Sessions with Former Gymnast

Her left hip was hurting, but Rachel wasn’t talking. Instead, she was trying to ignore the pain and push through it.

As a competitive, high-level gymnast, Rachel is accustomed to bumps, bruises and body aches, but she worried this might be something more. 

“It got really bad, to the point where I couldn’t really run or walk,” Rachel admits. “So, I had to tell someone.”

That someone was her mom, Sara, who worried the injury could be serious. They soon met with the same specialist who Rachel saw a few years earlier for a back injury.  

Tests and imaging confirmed Rachel’s hip injury wasn’t serious, and she was advised to rest for several weeks before beginning physical therapy. During this time, Sara learned about one physical therapist in particular who worked at Cincinnati Children’s. 

Specialized Physical Therapy Designed for Gymnasts

“I was made aware that she specialized in gymnasts, and I thought, well that’s who we need,” said Sara. “So, we got in touch with Amanda to start physical therapy. She understands the sport and what [Rachel’s] body faces.” 

Amanda Henderson, DPT, uses her personal and clinical experience to provide gymnasts like Rachel the support and education they need to recover from injuries and improve their performance. She competed as a gymnast for 12 years and then coached for 10 years after retiring as an athlete due to injuries.

An initial assessment in December 2023 revealed a lack of strength in key muscle groups. Rachel’s therapy was tailored to improve her hip and core strength as well as lower body flexibility. These improvements would allow her to perform the specific gymnastics skills that were causing her pain.

Amanda also shared helpful injury prevention strategies, including the importance of proper sleep, adequate nutrition, stress management and regular resistance training.

“Following injury or time off gymnastics, it is beneficial to seek guidance from a trained professional for a guided return to sport,” explained Amanda. “All too often, I hear of gymnasts taking multiple weeks off gymnastics to rest an injury, only to return too rapidly and have a relapse in their symptoms.” 

Rachel gradually progressed, improving in strength, range of motion and tolerance to activity. Starting with events that didn’t trigger hip pain, such as the beam and bars, Rachel then moved to floor exercises. She began with foundational gymnastics skills such as handstands, cartwheels and leaps.

Each week, she practiced more difficult skills and landing on different surfaces as she improved. By the end of her rehab, she was able to do advanced tumbling and vaulting.

“Amanda was like an extra coach, because she knew what Rachel does at the gym and how to get her back safely,” said Sara. “She could ask Rachel, ‘What is your routine? What do you do?’ Then, help her with the specifics. I thought that was tremendous. I wish we had found her years ago.” 

“I really liked Amanda,” Rachel added. “She was easy to joke around with, which made physical therapy more fun for me.” 

Amanda is aware that gymnastics is a highly competitive sport with a lot of pressure on young athletes to always compete at peak performance. Part of her job, she said, is to teach patients how to speak up for themselves. 

“A gymnast should never be pressured to work out through pain or ignore injuries,” said Amanda. “Being a former gymnast who dealt with multiple injuries myself, I can easily empathize with the gymnasts I work with in clinic. Every patient is unique with their own individual needs. So first and foremost, I build trust by simply listening.” 

Importance of Physical and Psychological Well-Being

After six weeks of rehab with Amanda, Rachel returned fully to gymnastics in time for her competition season. Throughout her therapy sessions at Cincinnati Children’s, Rachel had continued to train with her Top Flight gymnastics team—with Amanda’s support, of course. 

“I am a huge advocate for injured gymnasts remaining in the gym with their team while they rehab from an injury,” said Amanda. “Being surrounded by teammates and coaches can provide motivation and emotional support that can make the difference in helping an athlete feel tangible progress toward returning to the sport they love.”  

This was a different approach—and a welcome change—compared to the treatment plan prescribed after Rachel’s back injury years before she came to Cincinnati Children's. At that time, her doctor ordered zero activity for six weeks. According to Rachel, it was the lingering fear of time away from her teammates that led to her not speaking up sooner about her hip injury. She won’t stay quiet again. 

“I've learned that I can overcome obstacles and that injuries don't define me. My sport doesn't define me,” said Rachel. “And it's OK to take breaks when something hurts.”

In April, Rachel competed against athletes from five states during the Region 5 Championship in Chicago. Her events included uneven bars, balance beam, floor, vault and all-around. 

"She's so much stronger,” said Sara. “She jumps higher and definitely looks better than she did before the injury. It’s quite noticeable.”  

Rachel thinks the increased strength will give her more confidence moving forward. 

"When things are easier, you can have more confidence. Instead of thinking about how to use the power and how to create it, it's already there,” she said. 

For Sara, she’s thinking about an injury-free future for her daughter, but she knows if Rachel ever needs more therapy down the road, they know where to turn—and where to advise others. 

“I hope we don’t ever have to go back, but we have the resources if we do,” said Sara. “We already passed Amanda’s name along to someone else.” 

(Published May 2024)