ATTLEBORO - Maggie Dunn stepped into a gym in late March, knowing full well that time was running out for her to qualify for the Massachusetts state level 10 gymnastics championships. But that was the least of her concerns.
Upon arriving to the meet, Dunn realized that it had been a year - almost to the day - since she had participated in a meaningful competition. Since April of 2007, when she placed 11th overall in Nationals for her age bracket, Dunn, a freshman at Bishop Feehan, had suffered a string of small, albeit nasty, injuries, which kept her from the gym.
The 14-year-old suffered a hernia the summer after her run at Nationals, then foot severs, then broken fingers, then a broken heel just before the State Championships meet last year. And just as she was ready to get back to the sport she loves this season, a fracture in her lower back sidelined her for 10 more weeks, and, seemingly, for the 2009 State meet.
"When she came to me and said, 'My back hurts,' I was like 'Are you kidding me?' " Dunn's mother, Donna, said. "It seemed like we had just go back from being in the doctor's office."
Unfortunately, it wasn't a joke. At practice, Dunn was practicing tumbling with her team. One pass, everything was fine, and the next, Dunn came up with a sharp pain in her back. After a few more repetitions, the pain was increasingly worse.
With all of the back-to-back injuries keeping her from competition, did Dunn ever get discouraged?
"Well, yeah," she said, apprehensively. "But I missed it, so I was just focused on getting back."
Dunn trained hard at Brestyan's gym in Burlington with coach Mihai Brestyan, who coach recent Olympic star Alicia Sacramone. With that work, Dunn returned from the back injury just in time to qualify for the State meet. Still, no one expected much more, since she hadn't competed in so long. But
"At first, they just gave me the minimal skills and just kept adding difficulty as I got more comfortable," Dunn said.
And if she wasn't at 100 percent, she didn't show it. Dunn - whose original goal for the meet was simply to "not embarrass" herself - stormed through States, winning the beam and placing second overall.
She had an equally impressive showing at the Region 6 finals, which qualified her for the Nationals meet in Seattle, Wash., three months after coming back from a year long competing hiatus.
Just being at Nationals was enough for Dunn, but the hardware she took home was icing on her comeback cake. She finished seventh out of 58 girls in the all-around, including a national title on the beam.
During the championship-winning routine, Donna sat in awe of her daughter's near-flawless execution. People in the stands around her started whispering to her that this routine might just be enough to win first place.
Concluding with a round-off back handspring, a double tuck and a stuck landing, it was just that.
"I just, like, didn't move at all on the beam," Dunn said. "It was just the perfect routine at the perfect meet."
Added Donna: "She makes it to nationals and it's like, 'Well, hopefully she'll have a clean meet,' and then all of a sudden she's on the podium."
And along with the medals she won at Nationals, Dunn also earned the respect of collegiate gymnastics programs around the nation, many of who are starting to take notice of the youngster's talents.
"(College recruiters) used to be able to start contacting people in their junior year, but they're starting to put freshmen and sophomores on the radar," Dunn's mother, Donna, said. "She's already had a couple contacts via e-mail and she's already been sent stuff from a couple colleges."
Due to her young age, college recruiters can't directly call her, yet. But e-mails and letters are okay, and Dunn said she, "just screamed" from excitement when she received the first one.
Although she doesn't follow the world of college gymnastics too closely, Dunn's close friend and former gym partner Allie Skoly of East Greenwich, R.I. is on Stanford's team, and it's exciting for Dunn to see Skoly excelling at the next level.
But through all the attention and accolades, Dunn remains humble and level-headed. When asked about competing in the Olympics in the future, Dunn realizes how difficult a goal like that is.
"Six people go every four years," Dunn said. "To think you're one of those people - I don't know. It's just not realistic."
Instead, Dunn would like to use gymnastics to obtain a full-ride scholarship to college. And if she continues at this pace, that goal is well within her reach.