Iowa women’s gymnastics senior JerQuavia Henderson discusses identity beyond gymnastics

Growing up as a “trophy kid,” Henderson said it took coming to Iowa and struggling through an injury to find her value outside of the sport.


Lillie Hawker

Iowa gymnast JerQuavia Henderson competes on the beam during a gymnastics meet between Iowa and Minnesota in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. The Hawkeyes and the Gophers tied with each getting a score 196.875. (Lillie Hawker/The Daily Iowan)

Jami Martin-Trainor, Assistant Digital Editor

The world of gymnastics is associated with numerous positive qualities — forming strong work ethics, building abnormal physical prowess, and providing one of the strongest communities in sports.

JerQuavia Henderson, a senior on the Iowa women’s gymnastics team, said there’s a darker side to gymnastics that is all too often brushed under the rug.

“I didn’t have the best upbringing with gymnastics,” Henderson said. “I loved it so much that I stuck with it.”

Henderson said she accidentally fell into gymnastics. When she was a child, her family drove one of her friends to a gymnastics practice. She took one step in the gym before asking if she could try the sport. She never looked back after that moment.

Despite her love for the sport, the Illinois native encountered several mental hardships. She said a lot of those struggles are deeply rooted in the culture of gymnastics and are difficulties faced by many.

“It’s very hard because you don’t want to put the sport in a negative light, but there is a lot of truth that comes with it,” Henderson said. “The upbringing for most gymnasts in general is hard because you’re not seen as a person.”

Self-worth and success were tightly associated with each other, Henderson said. She said that she spent a lot of her life as a “trophy kid” where her value as a person was measured by how well she did in competition.

“It made it very hard for my confidence, my self-esteem,” Henderson said. “If I wasn’t good at gymnastics, I wasn’t good at anything.”

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Henderson said one of the main reasons she chose to commit to Iowa was gymnastics head coach Larissa Libby.

She said Libby was adamant about treating Henderson like a human being outside of her skills as a gymnast.

“I wanted to be seen as a person before anything else, and that is what she gave me,” Henderson said. “I’m here to be a successful human being.”

Despite the improvement in environment and mentality, Henderson still had areas of growth that she had to learn the hard way.

At the end of 2019, Henderson ruptured her Achilles tendon during practice. The injury required surgery and a long road to recovery.

“The lesson that I learned the hard way, being with an injury, is that I am so much more than a gymnast,” Henderson said. “Once I did get injured, I had to figure that out for myself, and it was the hardest thing I have had to do my entire college career.”

Henderson said Libby was a significant factor in her recovery and growth process. The support she received from the Iowa coaching staff, Henderson said, helped her through one of the hardest times in her gymnastics career.

Libby said she has known Henderson for years. Along with coaching her for the past four seasons, Henderson also attended Iowa gymnastics camps as a kid.

Every year, Libby said, Henderson came to camp with a list of skills she wanted to accomplish. That drive and dedication is one of the reasons Libby and the other coaching staff sought out Henderson for the Hawkeyes.

“A lot of it was [because] she was coachable,” Libby said. “She wanted to be coached, she wanted to grow. She had a good head on her shoulders.”

The coaching staff emphasizes positivity, Henderson said. Knowing the importance of mentality, Libby said they do everything they can to show Henderson they care about her and her well-being.

“She just doesn’t see those things as easily. It’s easier to believe the bad stuff than it is to believe the good stuff.” Libby said. “We tried to make sure to surround her with all the positivity in the world.”

Having known Henderson for a good portion of her life, Libby said it is hard to say goodbye. In gymnastics, so much time and energy is dedicated to the sport, so the team and coaching staff have a very close relationship.

“It’s always a good thing and a bad thing to see them grow and that you got to have a little piece in helping them to get on their way,” Libby said. “I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity, but it’s also sad to watch them move on.”

As a senior, Henderson said one of her goals before she leaves is scoring a perfect 10.

RELATED: Iowa women’s gymnastics ties with Minnesota in first home meet

Outside of that, Henderson said she is excited to receive her diploma. While she doesn’t know what her future in gymnastics looks like, the health and human physiology major is looking forward to getting rewarded for the hard work she puts into her academics.

While she doesn’t have any specific goals for her team, Henderson said all she wants is to see them satisfied with their own performances.

“The team that we have, and like the potential, is absolutely insane. I love my team. I would do anything for my team,” Henderson said. “That is my family. At the end of the day, wherever we are, whatever happens, I just want them all to be happy.”