Second Time's the Charm
March 26, 2007
Carey Fagan endured setbacks that would have made most gymnasts turn in their leotards and chalk without hesitation. But after injuries effectively ended her collegiate career at Penn State, Fagan is getting another chance at making her place in Big Ten history - this time on the sidelines as head coach at Ohio State.
The 5-foot native of North Canton, Ohio, and former Nittany Lion captain returned home in 2003 with hopes of turning her love for the sport into a coaching career. But her bond with coaching actually began when she was still a student-athlete at Penn State, helping the team to four straight regional titles (1995-98) from an unexpected perspective.
Penn State head coach Steve Shepard no doubt thought Fagan, who was known then by her maiden name of Hoyt, had unbridled potential. But one day after her sophomore season ended with an 11th place finish at the 1996 NCAA Championships, Fagan's hopeful collegiate career was changed forever.
The self-professed gym rat was already training for the next year, learning a double full punch front when something went wrong and she crushed her leg.
First the leg was casted for six weeks, but it healed crooked, so her doctors re-broke it and put plates and screws in her fibula. After spending four more months trying to recover from that surgery, Fagan's leg still was not healing. The doctors could not get the bone to re-grow, so they did yet another surgery, taking bones from her hip to paste over both fractures.
Three months after that, Fagan was finally able to take bar landings once a week. Despite her relentless conditioning, taking a couple dismounts a week from the bars was as far as she would ever return gymnastically.
During her recovery, Fagan channeled her disappointment of being sidelined in the only way she knew how - she became an honorary coach. Still attending practices and giving every bit of encouragement she could must to the team, Fagan helped Shepard and his assistant coaches coordinate workouts.
"I put in my two cents where I could," said Fagan. "There is a lot more to coaching than simply coaching, especially at the college level. With recruiting and the administrative things that go on behind the scenes, I don't think a lot of people fully understand the career as a whole. You take on a lot of different roles."
A couple surgeries and more than a year and a half after the training accident, the determined Fagan was not about to give up the sport she had been involved in since she was 6.
She was able to return to competition on the uneven bars as a senior, helping the team to a Top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships in 1998.
"There were a lot of times when I debated - and it wasn't anything like a lack of love for the sport or motivation - with the surgeries and the doctors, I didn't think it was going to ever be medically possible for me to come back," Fagan explained. "To be able to come back and contribute for my senior year was huge."
Even before that devastating injury, Fagan had a reputation as one of the grittiest competitors on the team. One heroic moment during her sophomore season solidified that status.
Penn State played host to the 1996 NCAA Northeast Regional, looking to defend its title among a field of highly competitive contenders.
Vault was the final event, and Fagan lined up as the Nittany Lions' anchor. The team score was so close that if she scored a 9.6, the team's season would end; notching a 9.8, however, would send Penn State back to nationals.
On her first attempt, Fagan landed flat on her face, and the 9.075 she earned was not what her team wanted with a national championships berth on the line.
But there was a second attempt looming, and Fagan was determined to not let the initial fall shake her confidence.
"I just remember walking back [from the fall] and feeling like I wasn't ready for this to be our seniors' last meet," she said. "Even though I was just a sophomore, I didn't want the season to end either. There was just no way I was going to do this vault the way any way but how I had trained it."
The plucky sophomore sprinted down the runway with a berth to the national championships on the line, and nailed a career-high 9.875 that sent the Nittany Lions on to an 11th-place finish at the NCAA meet.
She was also a solid contributor on bars and floor exercise that season, but at one point it all seemed impossible.
Fagan briefly quit the sport during her freshman year of high school. Despite her parents' urging to walk away, she missed the day-to-day challenges and time in the gym.
After graduating a year early from high school, Fagan enrolled at Penn State in 1994. But that October, the rookie suffered a fracture in her right wrist that doctors fixed with a screw in her Navicular bone. Next she broke her thumb, which was followed by a thyroid problem that sidelined her for two months. In preseason the following year, she sprained her ankle twice.
"There were definitely days and weeks - probably even months - where I thought the easier thing to do was say sometimes you just can't do it," said Fagan. "It's frustrating, and I see that as a coach now, too. The thing that kept me going, wanting to finish, is that you put so much time and energy into the sport with years of training, and I had this feeling of not wanting it to end that way.
"My teammates and my coaches were so encouraging. They never gave up on me for one second, and that was huge."
While Fagan was never able to secure the coveted status of All-American or use her tumbling to write her name in the Penn State record books, she left an enduring mark on program history in a different way when the Nittany Lions named the Carey Hoyt Perseverance Award. The honor is given to an individual who overcomes setbacks and injuries and "does so with the right attitude and a smile on her face."
"The biggest thing for me, going into college gymnastics is you want to be remembered for something," said Fagan. "As a freshman, my thought was `I'm going to be an All-American and I'm going to win Nationals,' and then I got into it and all these injuries happened. To end my career and have [the award] as what I am remembered by, it is just awesome. It's not something that I ever envisioned - especially starting my career - but it's definitely an honor and something that is close to my heart."
After graduation, Fagan moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to pursue a corporate marketing job and family with then-fiancé Ryan Fagan, a former starting guard on the Nittany Lion football team who overcame injuries of his own during the 1998 season. Even as she relocated cross-country, gymnastics was never far from her mind. In New Mexico, Fagan also worked as an assistant coach at Westside Gymnastics Club from 1999-2002 in case any collegiate opportunities ever came up.
The family moved back to Ohio in 2003, and when an assistant coaching opportunity opened at Ohio State, Fagan jumped for another chance to make her mark in Big Ten gymnastics.
The Buckeyes' former coach Larry Cox had known Fagan for nearly a decade, since he recruited her for Ohio State in 1994. The long-time Scarlet and Grey mentor knew right away that Fagan would make a perfect fit, especially with her history at Penn State.
"She was one of those kids you could count on," said Cox of Fagan's collegiate days. "You knew she was money in the bank - she's going to count for you and do a good job.
"She was so gung-ho and excited about coaching. It wasn't really a hard sell. She came in and did an incredible job right away."
When the legendary Buckeye mentor retired after 25 years with Ohio State at the end of the 2004 season, he knew having Fagan as head coach would give the program's future the best opportunity to flourish.
"Of all the candidates, she had an `in' to knowing what Ohio State was all about and how it could go forward," Cox said. "Carey was already bringing some of those fresh ideas to the table. She just learned so much from being a part of a Big Ten team. She had an understanding of what the girls would think about, how they needed to be trained, and how to approach them on certain things. She ended up being a magical fit."
In her first season as head coach, Fagan's Buckeyes fought through a tough transitional year. Led by former walk-on turned three-time All-Big Ten selection Elizabeth Meaney, the team missed a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships by 0.025 points and finished eighth in its regional.
By last season, her third year at the helm, Fagan guided the Buckeyes up two spots to a fifth-place finish in the conference meet and back to the NCAA regional championships. The trip marked the Buckeyes' 21st postseason appearance in program history.
The squad that finished 27th in the final national rankings last year returned nine letterwinners, including All-Big Ten first-team selection Maalika Moore-Thomas.
"I think that right away she had ideas that she wanted to establish in order to get to her big goals," said Cox. "The biggest thing she is bringing to the table is consistency. She's able to create some kind of consistency in her recruiting in terms of performance. I keep seeing them get better and better from her first day until now - not just during the course of this season."
When Fagan made her first trip back to her college stomping grounds at Penn State's Rec Hall as the Scarlet and Grey mentor in 2005, she knew the odds of an upset were unlikely. Instead, Fagan focused on preparing her team to set a better regional qualifying score.
What a difference two years make. This past February, Fagan's then-18th-ranked Buckeyes headed to Penn State as the conference's second highest-rated squad behind only the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions. Ohio State scored season bests on both bars and floor while sweeping the top three all-around spots. Despite a narrow loss, Fagan is more confident in her team than she has ever been as they prepare to return to State College for the 2007 Big Ten Women's Gymnastics Championships on March 31.
"Our scores from the beginning of the year have steadily climbed, and it's a real tribute to the kids for maintaining the level of training in the gym," she said. "Going into the Big Ten Championships this year we have a great opportunity. We're anxious to be matched up against the other teams, on the same floor, on the same night to really see how much we have improved in the last few years. I think it's a little more nerve-wracking now knowing that if we put our best routines up and they put their best routines up, it will be a close meet."
Looking back, Cox thinks Fagan's novel approach to the position is best for handling all the changes the sport has seen over past two-plus decades.
"Gymnastics has a lot more respect than it did when I first started here. We've got a lot of respect at Ohio State, but I don't think we got it nationally until we became we part of the Big Ten after I came here," he said. "From a Big Ten standpoint, I would like to see the league become the dominant conference in our sport at some point. They have certainly made strides towards being the best right now. There have been a lot of changes in the past 25 years, but the talent level is just tremendous and the parity is incredible too."
But Fagan's vision celebrates more than her successful homecomings to Ohio and the conference. She treasures the privilege of a second chance to take on the sport she loves. As Big Ten women's gymnastics looks forward, Fagan hopes more student-athletes will follow in her footsteps and keep working to create more opportunities for those who follow.
"I have so many of my teammates that still have that difficult transition out of gymnastics because for the majority of their lives, you go to practice, you aim for this score, you're part of a team," Fagan said. "When all of that's over, a lot of people have a really hard time figuring out who they are without gymnastics. I feel really fortunate that I've not had to face that transition out of gymnastics.
"I don't think gymnastics is who I am, but I certainly think it's great to remain a part of the sport, give back to the athletes, and hopefully have a positive impact on the sport overall."
She's making sure to take advantage of every chance she gets.