By Tim Rogers
Brecksville gymnast Michaela Romito overcomes multiple obstacles to reach the verge of history
Pain is no stranger in the world of gymnastics.
Michaela Romito is no stranger to pain.
It hangs on the edge of every balance beam and in every twisting landing off the vault. It is concealed somewhere in the mat during every somersault of a floor exercise and lurks in every transition on the parallel bars.
Pain is as much a part of high school gymnastics as a leotard or face glitter.
Romito knows pain. Probably more than most. She could be the poster child for playing through pain.
Romito, a senior at Brecksville-Broadview Heights and a four-time gold medal winner at the state gymnastics meet, has dealt with many of the nagging injuries that gymnasts suffer — the sprained fingers and toes . . . the pulled muscles . . . the stiff back – and like most, she has done it with admirable mental toughness.
But what many people might not know is that Romito, who has won three consecutive state championships in floor exercise and has twice finished as the state runner-up in the all-inclusive all-around competition, has fought physical demons of a more serious nature over the last three years.
In June of 2010, nine months before she competed in her first state meet, Romito was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and Celiac disease. Crohn’s causes inflammation in the small intestine and can affect any part of the digestive tract. Celiac is a problem people have with foods that contain gluten, protein found in foods such as bread, crackers and pasta. One’s immune system attacks the gluten, thus harming the small intestine and making it difficult to absorb nutrients that keep you healthy. Celiac can lead to osteoporosis and iron deficiency anemia.
This was serious stuff, not a simple sprained ankle or wrist. A dislocated pinkie? Tame compared to what Romito faced. Both diseases can be extremely painful and raise discomfort levels to new heights. That’s what Romito went through for about one year before she was diagnosed. Hesitantly, she will tell you it wasn’t pleasant.
“Basically, I felt bad for the entire year,” she said. “It started with the stomach flu and a case of food poisoning, which I never fully recovered from. Then, it got kind of worse.”
The symptoms increased. Severe stomach pain. Nausea. Alarming weight loss. A feeling of weakness. Rushes to the ladies room. To make matters worse, she developed shingles, another painful intrusion. Her condition reached a stage that required a week-long hospital stay.
“The worst part,” at least in Romito’s view, was that her skills began to diminish. She was unable to perform the elements of certain routines that she had mastered years earlier.
“I was miserable,” she said. “I was just tired all the time. I felt weak and fatigued. I missed a lot of time in the gym. It was so hard.”
Romito is literally a life-long gymnast. Following in the footsteps of her gymnast mother, Lisa, she began training at Gymnastics World shortly after she had learned to walk. The facility, owned by Brecksville coach Joan Ganim and her husband and former co-coach, Ron, has been the training ground for the BBH program that has won 13 state championships — including 10 in a row — and is currently riding a winning streak that stands at a remarkable 777 consecutive victories in duals, triangulars, regular season events and sectional, district and state meets. The Bees have not lost an event of any kind in 10 years.
“Michaela had reached a pretty high level of competition,” said Joan Ganim. “She competed in the Level 9 Eastern Nationals but then things started to go downhill. She had trouble accomplishing the things she had accomplished previously. It was very frustrating for her. In general, gymnasts are very goal-oriented people and Michaela is just like that. So, it became frustrating for her when she felt she wasn’t accomplishing her goals.”
Still, she refused to give in. She fought through it. She won her first gold medal on the floor, finished second on the beam and third in the all-around in the 2011 state meet, fighting her internal foes as fiercely as she fought her opponents.
“The worst part was not knowing what the problem was,” said Romito. “I was miss-diagnosed a couple of times. I got depressed. I was sad, confused.”
Then came the diagnosis and a light at the end of the tunnel that did not resemble a train. Still, hurdles remained.
“At first when I was diagnosed, I was depressed,” she recalls. “I was devastated. Then my mom and dad helped me research it and my doctor assured me that I would be able to deal with it. I still had three years of high school left and, hopefully, college. I wasn’t going to let this get in the way of that.”
There’s that goal-oriented personality thing.
Romito, 5-6 and 120 pounds, undergoes treatment at the Cleveland Clinic every four or five weeks. She receives an intravenous dose of Remicade, used to treat several autoimmune diseases.
“It’s not a big deal anymore,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I usually sleep through them. My body tells me when it’s time for a treatment. It’s become part of my routine.”
While watching her diet, she also drinks a lot of water and takes more vitamins than Mick Jagger, spacing them throughout the day. She cannot eat anything that contains gluten.
“It’s probably something like 20 a day,” she said of her pill intake. “Sometimes I feel like an old lady.”
Romito, who has been promised a scholarship to Kent State, is not bitter. She does not play the woe-is-me game. Instead, she heads for the place where she feels the best.
“The gym is my get-away place,” she said. “The gym lets me escape the real world and train and do what I like to do.”
And, she does it well.
“She has been one of the top girls to come out of the Brecksville program,” said Joan Ganim. “She has become a great team leader and she is very observant.”
Entering her final season, Romito has a chance of becoming the first to win four consecutive floor exercise state championships. Rocky River Magnificat’s Julie Devaty won four straight titles on the balance beam and Chesterland West Geauga’s Gina Gastaldo duplicated that from 2003-2006.
To date, Romito also has a gold medal on the beam (2012) and three second-place finishes in the all-around.
She admits that not having won the coveted all-around title bothers her “a little bit.”
“This season is my grand finale,” she said. “I have a good feeling about it.”
It only seems fair that Romito finally gets a chance to feel good. She’s paid more than her share of dues.