BOUNTIFUL – Inspiring people isn’t something that happens every day.
Bountiful native Hailee Hansen, who served as the co-captain of the Red Rocks gymnastics team until her recent graduation, capped off her career by receiving both the University of Utah’s Most Inspirational Female Athlete Award and the Diane Ellingson Award.
Both honors reflect Hansen’s often difficult gymnastics journey, overcoming medical issues in order to become the first walk-on co-captain in the team’s history.
“They were the best four years of my life, no question about that,” said Hansen. “Just walking out to a crowd of 14,000 to 15,000 is something no one gets to do, and something I’ll never get to do again.”
The Diane Ellingson Award, which is given out by the gymnastics coaching team, is named after a former University of Utah gymnast who battled back from a paralyzing accident. The award is given annually to the most inspirational gymnast.
The rest of the school’s athletes agreed with the coaches’ choice. The Most Inspirational Female Athlete Award was chosen by all of the senior athletes at the school.
“There were three awards for women, and three awards for men,” said Hansen. “Every single senior athlete at the school, from every sport, chose the winners.”
Years ago, Hansen couldn’t have imagined ending up here. After getting a late start in her sport of choice, she was sidelined by Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) during her sophomore and junior years of high school.
“I had a huge piece of cartilage in my knee break off during my first competition sophomore year, and I was told to stay off it for 6 to 9 months,” she said. “Literally one year later, my knee gave out. I had to have surgery, and the doctors told me that gymnastics wasn’t the sport for me.”
Briefly, Hansen was tempted to listen to their advice.
“When you take that much time off of gymnastics, like with any other sport, it’s so hard to get back into it,” she said. “You have to re-learn all your skills. But once I decided to continue, that was the year I absolutely fell in love with the sport.”
Still, there were challenges. At the time, both years were key competition years that recruiters used to watch the gymnasts in action. Since Hansen had missed both those years, she was at even more of a disadvantage.
“I had to send out videos of me practicing, which is not something you typically do,” said Hansen.
Her efforts were successful, however, garnering her several scholarship opportunities and a walk-on (non-scholarship) opportunity with the University of Utah team. Though most people thought she was foolish for turning down the scholarship offered, she’d dreamt of being part of the Red Rocks for years.
“I grew up not really winning, and the Red Rocks were always so spectacular,” said Hansen. “I knew I was going to have to work harder than the other girls because I didn’t have the talent they did, but I knew I was a hard worker. I told myself ‘I can do this.’”
And she did. In addition to her unprecedented co-captaincy, Hansen is only the third walk-on in the school’s history to earn All-American Honors. She is also a three-time Academic all-conference selection.
More importantly to Hansen, she found a bond with her team that not even graduation can break.
“The hardest thing for me will be to not see the coaches and the other girls each day,” said Hansen. “You develop this culture, this family, and it’s been hard for me to move on from that.”
The lessons she’s learned, however, will stay with her always.
“In those four years, I can say that I was truly proud of myself,” she said. “I’ll always support the Red Rocks.”