Iowa gymnastics’ Kaji finds leadership through unexpected injury

After suffering a season-ending injury, junior Clair Kaji found herself during a challenging and difficult road to recovery. 


Grace Colton

Iowa gymnast Clair Kaji competes on the floor at a meet against Rutgers on Saturday, January 26, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 194.575 to 191.675.

Jess Westendorf, Sports Reporter

It has been 375 days since junior Clair Kaji experienced, in her opinion, one of the most life-changing and grounding events of her life.

On Jan. 19, 2018, Kaji and the GymHawks faced a tough Ohio State team at Carver-Hawkeye and came out with a “W.”

But things were about to change for Kaji. During the meet, she suffered a torn Achilles that ended her season.

“It was a really tough thing to process at the beginning,” Kaji said. “It was an abrupt stop — without any warning or expecting it made it even more difficult.”

As she looked forward to how she was going to get back to the team, she knew it was going to be a long and challenging road.

Perhaps the toughest part for the 2017 NCAA qualifier was finding her place on the team while healing and working to get back.

“It was hard because I wanted to get better for myself so I could get back to the team, but looking at the big picture, we are one team, not one individual, so I had to think of it as finding a way to stay involved so that I could grow into a new role as I was in my recovery,” Kaji said.

And she was not alone during her recovery period.

“I was and am really thankful for my coaches, the staff, and my team for keeping me invested and involved in everything that was happening,” Kaji said.

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But even though this was not the ideal situation for her, there were some positives to come out of the situation.

For one, she grew into an even stronger leader and role model for the team. After getting hurt, there was a struggle for her on figuring out who she was during her time away from gymnastics.

In the end, the downtime gave her the chance to look within and find those fun and beautiful things that made her who she is as a person.

“Though I never imagined going through this, I think in the end, it was good for me,” she said. “It gave me a new perspective on things that I didn’t have before, and I think it really taught me the bigger things that I didn’t have before.”

Iowa head coach Larissa Libby agreed that the injury changed Kaji for the better in the end and allowed her to see more of herself as who she was instead of  just a gymnast.

“I think it was where she grew the most,” Libby said. “If you ask people who are closest to her, she is a very different person now than what she was even a year ago. She took the time to look at herself and see herself without gymnastics for the first time.”

Many gymnasts such as Kaji have been competing since they were little and doing it nonstop, so in a sense, it becomes a part of each athlete.

But Kaji was able to handle her injury very well while being a leader and doing the best for her team.

“She handled her injury so well and was in the gym every day cheering the team on,” Libby said. “She never showed that she was feeling sorry for herself even though it was tough, and I think it gave the team a sense of strength for her and for them.”

Now, five meets into the season, Kaji is performing at her best and back on the mat with her team. But the best part for her is being back with her GymHawks.

“It has been a feeling of pure happiness to be back out, having the Hawk on my chest and representing what I love with gymnastics, my team, and this university,” Kaji said.