Provo • It won’t just be BYU Gymnastics’ competing at the Smith Fieldhouse for the first time this season on Friday. It’ll be Angel Zhong’s first time competing on her home floor in nearly two years.
An injury forced Zhong to take a medical redshirt year in what turned out to be a shortened season. Due to the pandemic, the Cougars’ 2020 season came to an end sooner than expected and BYU was unable to compete in the postseason.
Zhong is grateful to have the chance at a whole season to end her career on.
“For me personally, I was really sad that I had to sit out the last season, but it worked out perfectly because that would have been my senior year,” Zhong said. “... It was so heartbreaking for me to watch two of my best friends and teammates Shannon [Evans] and Briana [Pearson], and they both had to end their careers without a Senior Night and without a postseason.”
In Nov. 2019, Zhong ruptured her Achilles tendon. The gymnast is all-too-familiar with injuries, having been in the sport for so long, but it was the first one that required her to have surgery. Three months after surgery, Zhong started walking again, but then the pandemic shut everything down.
Suddenly, Zhong had to go back home to Canada and was left unable to do physical therapy. It was up to her to figure out how to strengthen her ankle.
“Our gym didn’t open up again until I think June,” Zhong said. “When I finally was able to feel like I was back to my full strength was probably November of last year. So, it took about a year.”
Now, Zhong is competing on vault, uneven bars and beam. The senior is refraining from floor, an event she won the 2015 Canadian National Title in, due to her injury.
However, it’s still a progress from her freshman season, when Zhong helped the Cougars as a specialist on vault. Before coming to Provo, Zhong considered the uneven bars her worst event, but most recently tied for third at the Utah State meet with a score of 9.800.
On the vault, Zhong scored a 9.775 and a 9.5 on balance beam.
“I feel like what helped a lot was gaining my confidence here [at BYU] as a gymnast and individually as a person, because I always felt like I had the skills I needed, but just not the self belief and the confidence, which I gained at BYU,” Zhong said. “In addition to that, just a lot of hard work.”
The No. 12-ranked Cougars are coming off a season-high score at Utah State, but Zhong believes the team has the potential to not only continue improving, but crack the Top 10.
In fact, at Utah State, BYU was without its key athletes, and even without two of the coaches, due to COVID-19, Zhong said. Since the team has started team workouts again last summer, they have worked in small groups to avoid having the whole team quarantined due to a positive test result or contact tracing.
Zhong contracted the virus early last summer and, after dealing with a relatively minor case, has managed to test negative as different athletes have been forced to sit out a couple of weeks through the season, she said.
The pandemic has also the Cougars to perform in empty or mostly-empty arenas. On Friday, only family members will be allowed at Smith Fieldhouse.
“That’s really put a different perspective on it because part of the reason you love being a college athlete and a gymnast is because of the crowd and how responsive they are to when you do something,” Zhong said. “But now, it really brings it in to you and your team. It really makes you reevaluate why you’re doing the sport and what you love about it because you don’t get the loud cheers. It’s all about you doing the sport that you love.”
The constant changes caused by the pandemic has forced Zhong to take in this season from a different perspective. The senior is trying to enjoy and soak in every single moment of competing, and focusing on enjoying the process more than the results.
“Because anything can happen — anything can get canceled,” Zhong said. “I’m just so grateful to get this opportunity, against all odds, because I was injured and then this pandemic. The fact that I get to enjoy one more year of gymnastics, I just want to be grateful and have fun doing it. I found in the past that’s when I do my best and that’s when my team does the best.”