Before the Cal gymnastics team knew how widely the COVID-19 pandemic would impact everyday life, it continued with its training as planned.
On the morning of March 12, senior Rachael Mastrangelo had no idea that it would be her final practice with the team. The Bears went through their normal routines, but later that day, the NCAA announced the cancellation of all sporting events.
“Wow, that was the last time I’m going to do a triple full ever again,” Mastrangelo said of realizing that her time as a competitive gymnast had come to such an abrupt end.
The world of sports is often unfair and riddled with disappointment. Redemption is never promised. Loose ends aren’t always tied up elegantly — seniors don’t always score the winning points and injuries don’t always heal for the last meet of the season.
But the hard work in the middle of our story isn’t worthless, even if we never see that perfect ending.
Mastrangelo’s story serves as a reminder of this.
“In the end, it’s not about winning. It’s about being there with your team and seeing how far you’ve come,” she said.
Mastrangelo was robbed of her senior night, the peak meets of her final college gymnastics season and most importantly, her last few moments with teammates. Despite this, she is remembering her time on the Cal women’s gymnastics team for what it was, rather than what it could have been.
Mastrangelo is no stranger to disappointment. During her senior year of high school, she suffered an ankle injury that required extensive surgery and recovery. This injury prevented her from finishing out her senior club season, a major letdown that would unfortunately be relived four years later.
She started her freshman year at Cal in a boot, with a frustrating inability to practice or compete. The road to recovery was long; she had surgery in June and was not out of the boot until October.
“The hardest part of that injury was trying to walk again. For two years, I was doing gym on the side of my foot because it hurt so bad. Being able to push off the ball of my foot took me such a long time. Even walking around campus hurt,” Mastrangelo said. “It was definitely a rough start, but I made it through.”
Despite this less than ideal start to her collegiate gymnastics career, co-head coaches Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, also known as Liz to the team, and Justin Howell are adamant that Mastrangelo did not let this setback stop her. In fact, this unfortunate circumstance may have emboldened her to train with greater intensity and courage.
“That struggle made her really get excited about getting into competitive shape again,” Crandall-Howell said. “It would have been easy for her at that point to give up. She could have let it keep her down, and she didn’t.”
She went on to compete on vault twice during her freshman year. When she finally returned to the competition floor, she was not the athlete that she knew she could be. After sitting out for a majority of her freshman season, Mastrangelo was determined to fulfill her potential. She spent the summer months training in the gym so that she could hit the ground running in August.
“I wanted to prove to Justin and Liz that they didn’t recruit me for nothing,” Mastrangelo said.
In a sport that takes such a toll on the body, it is common for a gymnast’s health to start deteriorating by the time they reach the collegiate level. Gymnasts can struggle to improve beyond the level they performed at during high school.
Mastrangelo was the complete opposite.
She increased the difficulty of her routines every year, reclaiming the skills she had lost to her ankle injury and obtaining new ones. By her senior season, Mastrangelo felt she was performing better than she ever had.
During her junior year, the coaching staff named her the team’s most improved gymnast — a taste of gratification for an athlete who started her collegiate journey unable to even walk without pain.
“One of the things that Rachael has done really well for our team is set an example of being fearless. She wasn’t afraid to take a risk, she wasn’t afraid to fall down,” Crandall-Howell said. “In order to get better in gymnastics — and in life too — you have to be able to fall.”
But Mastrangelo’s biggest asset to the program may have been her ability to make others laugh.
“Rachael is really, really funny,” Crandall-Howell said.
When asked what she will miss the most about coaching Mastrangelo, Crandall-Howell responded: “her laughter.”
Nicknamed “Big Rach” by a teammate during her freshman year for her tall stature, Mastrangelo is well-loved by her fellow gymnasts. She has made an effort to reach out and include new team members each year, helping to ease the transition to college. For many of her teammates, her presence calmed their nerves and fostered positivity during the tense moments of competition.
In typical Mastrangelo fashion, the gymnast is continuing to focus on the positive, despite the fact that the season will always remain unfinished. She had the opportunity to prove herself and compete with one of the best gymnastics teams in the country. The team ranked No. 9 in the nation this season, and numerous athletes — including Mastrangelo — achieved career records.
“Our team culture and bond was definitely showing through our performances because we were killing it. I was so excited to make it to nationals with them and show the world that we have what it takes to be up there,” Mastrangelo said.
Mastrangelo will graduate with a degree in social welfare in May, with plans to pursue a career in the financial sector. But she is determined to keep gymnastics in her life.
“The majority of my best friends are still on the team,” she said.
She plans on staying in contact with her teammates and is looking forward to seeing the success the 2021 season could bring.
When asked what advice she would give to teammates continuing on without her next season, Mastrangelo said,“Have fun.”
“One of the things that our team had been talking about in the previous weeks before everything blew up was being grateful that they were part of this team, and that this team would only exist in that moment, that there would never be this particular team again,” Crandall-Howell said. “They were talking about enjoying every little bit that they had left of this season.”
Mastrangelo hopes that her teammates will continue to support one another and enjoy their own journeys.
Unfortunately, the NCAA will not be granting another year of eligibility to athletes in winter sports. Mastrangelo’s collegiate career has come to a close, but the impact she has made on Cal’s gymnastics program is enduring.
Despite severe disappointment, Mastrangelo is trying not to let this sour ending stop her from cherishing the time that she did have. During her time in the program, she overcame a serious injury, and her fearless nature allowed her to continue to improve season after season.
That same boldness and courage will carry her into the next phase of her life. She is choosing to move forward with a positive outlook, despite the circumstances.
“I can’t just sit here and mourn, I have to just look forward and look ahead at what my future will hold,” Mastrangelo said.
Mastrangelo’s story reveals a hard truth of life: we don’t always get the closure we deserve. But life can still be sweet, even if we never taste the fruits of our labor. This is true for athletes — and ordinary people — all around the globe, who will go on without their championship tournaments, graduation ceremonies and final moments of glory.
Life doesn’t always promise us a grand finale and a final bow when the curtain closes. But we can’t let that stop us from cherishing our own journeys, and knowing in our hearts that we are worth every round of applause. When Mastrangelo looks back to see how far she has come, she will see a journey that she can be proud of.
Sarah Siegel covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].