Bouncing Back: Stephens still aims high - Part 2
In Part 1 of our Series with Clay Stephens, we spoke to him about his recovery following a heart-breaking knee injury and the impact COVID-19 has had on his college lifestyle. You can read it here.
No stranger to personal challenges, Stephens has been unlucky with injury throughout his career, with back injuries plaguing his junior years and abdominal injuries and health scares throughout his early international campaigns.
But through it all, Stephens has kept a competitive and positive attitude. An attitude that saw him achieve great things at a young age.
“Even before I’d chosen between soccer and gymnastics, I had the mindset that I was going to be so damn good at this. I’ve always had that mentality and drive.
“Leading into benchmark events like the Youth Olympic Games, you realise you can leave your mark on the international stage. That was my first solid, futuristic goal.
“I had a year and a half to get to that level and reach the Youth Olympic games. That was the first benchmark goal that I set and made.
“When I got there, I realised that I could be competitive at these events, I should be aiming for the biggest goals I can set myself in this sport.”
After making the move to Canberra and training at the Australian Institute of Sport for three years, Stephens made the decision to accept a scholarship to the University of Illinois.
“All of the hurdles played a big part in the decision to move. It wasn’t anything to do with those around me. So much stuff had happened to me, why not use gymnastics to grow as a person.”
Despite seeming to be filled with confidence, Stephens admitted that the decision wasn’t easy. Close to his family, it was the draw of a big team environment as well as the support of fellow Australian and now Illinois alumni Tyson Bull that made the decision that much easier.
“To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have moved here if it wasn’t for Tyson,” Stephens said.
“Without him, I wouldn’t have had the knowledge to make the decision and he gave me the security to know it was an environment where I would push for the dream to try and make the Olympic games.
“He was pivotal in my decision and he continues to be a mentor and brother. For us, his teammates to be able to watch the pivotal moment in his career, for him to nail it and he qualified in 2019 for Tokyo, it was unreal. It was incredible and something to aspire to.”
Like most athletes, Stephens can see life after his professional gymnastics career, but understands what the sport has taught him over the last 18 years.
“I’ve got a lot of other outlets that I like to associate with because gymnastics is not who I am. It’s a big part of my life but it’s not who I am.
“It’s taught me things I will use in the rest of my life. I’m one of the captains on the team here and I talk a lot to the team about experiencing other cultures, meeting new people, being interested in what people are doing.
“There is no growth without some kind of struggle. That’s what I’ve learnt going through physical and mental challenges in gymnastics.
“Just being resilient and more recently the biggest thing I’ve learned is the need to step back and try and be patient.
“Why am I doing this? It’s so I can grow, I love seeing how I’ve grown because of listening and learning from others and then being able to help teach those same things.”
Despite the unknown lying ahead of him and so many others due to the current global pandemic, Stephens continues to aim high; determined to once again beat the odds.
With more wisdom than most 23-year old’s, it’s impossible to not be inspired by his dedication and attitude.
Whether the preparation happens in Illinois or Canberra that remains to be seen, but regardless, Stephens has his sights set on the dream; for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
“For me, I have to grab life and do something with it.”