Rhett Umphress

After leaving the team in the Fall Semester, Paige Oswalt wasn't even supposed to be around for her Senior Night.

"She came to me in August and was like, ‘Coach, I can't do it anymore. I'm going to retire. I'm going to be done. I just want to be done,'" coach Nadalie Walsh said.

The sole senior and uneven bars specialist for Ball State has been dealing with adversity throughout her college career.

Walsh's first recruit at Ball State, Oswalt has undergone six knee surgeries during her gymnastics career. The last one knocked her out of competition for her junior season.

A change of heart made Oswalt come back to gymnastics in December, just weeks before the regular season, which makes Walsh think that this journey makes for a great story.

"If you wanted to write a book about a girl who has gone through so much, you'd write a book about her," Walsh said.

After Oswalt told her coach of her decision to retire, Walsh said her initial reaction was relief, allowing Oswalt to go on her terms.

Getting Oswalt back, though, was a great benefit to the Cardinals — both in competition and from a morale standpoint.

"She just came in and was that hero riding in," Walsh said.

Ball State had lost its top bars contributors, led by regional qualifier Bibiana Rodriguez. Oswalt helped to bridge the gap to this season's bars team, Walsh said.

"Had she not come back, I think we would really still be down in the slums," she said.

Oswalt said that sitting out had a big impact on her mentality toward the sport.

"It was tough sitting out," Oswalt said, "but I guess it kind of made me stronger in my determination and will to strive for what I know I could do."

Oswalt said she has been reflecting on a number of memories from the past four years as this season comes to an end.

"Sad hasn't really hit me yet, but it's going to," she said.

Even though Oswalt hasn't been a key contributor to the Cardinals in the second half of the season, last competing for the team on Feb. 18, she has served as a mentor and friend to her teammates.

Ball State's other bars specialist, junior MaryAnn Oehlerking, who transferred to Ball State this season, said she and Oswalt formed a quick bond.

"We had some of the same struggles with our mounts and routines, and we've helped each other a tremendous amount," Oehlerking said. "We've actually become really, really close."

Oswalt led the team on the bars once this season, a 9.65 against Central Michigan and put up a season-high 9.675 versus Illinois State.

Walsh said Oswalt's contributions went beyond the meets.

"She's just done a tremendous amount for the program," Walsh said. "Even when she was a freshman, it was so apparent — her leadership qualities.

"She was never afraid to lead, and people were never afraid to follow her."

Oehlerking said Oswalt was a leader by nature.

"She just commanded a type of respect, and I was a little intimidated, which doesn't happen often," Oehlerking said.

Walsh said Oswalt's return is "inspiring" to her teammates. She said every gymnast's outlook would be changed by learning from the senior.

Junior Brittney Emmons agreed, noting that Oswalt has been a source of motivation.

"When you're down, she gets in your face to get you back up, and that's awesome. I love that about her," Emmons said.

Oswalt's final home routine, a 9.575 exhibition performance, capped off her career.

After this season, Oswalt will finish her dietetics degree and wants to get into coaching or sports performance.

Oswalt said she hopes she's remembered more for her work with her teammates than the adversity she faced.

"I know a lot of people have looked up to me because I've been through so many injuries, but I don't want it to be looked at from an injury point of view.

"I want it to be more of, ‘She's strong; she wants everyone to look at her because she loves this sport.'"