Four years ago, Austin Sheppard stepped onto Michigan’s campus as a freshman majoring in movement science, hell-bent on becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Even in high school, Sheppard knew she wanted to pursue a degree in the medical field — but had no idea where she wanted to go to college. Originally from Murphy, Texas, Sheppard was a well-accomplished gymnast as a sophomore at Plano East High School. She garnered three prominent finishes at the 2010 Junior Olympic National Championships, placing second on floor, third on vault and seventh in the all-around.

And with a record like that, she caught the eye of Michigan.

The Wolverines started recruiting Sheppard her sophomore year. After a little encouragement from her mother to check the school out, she decided she wanted to pursue a higher education at Michigan. Sheppard committed her junior year of high school, ready to get going when she walked on campus as a freshman.  

Now, after four years and one change in career plans, Sheppard not only has maintained her reputation as a successful gymnast, but also hasn’t abandoned her determination to work in the medical field. With such a long-term commitment required to become a doctor, Sheppard made the decision to switch her goals to nursing.

“I wanted to major in movement science because I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon,” Sheppard said. “But then when I got here, I realized how much of a demand for school that was and how much athletics would be on top of that. For me, I just figured it wasn’t the route I wanted to go. I still want to do something in medicine, though. I want to go into nursing.”

Balancing a pre-med track and Big Ten athletics certainly hasn’t been easy, but Sheppard has managed to do it with great success.

Despite being sidelined the end of her sophomore year due to injury and being limited to two events, Sheppard was recently named to the All-Big Ten first team for the second time in her career. She was also on the All-Big Ten Championships Team in 2014 and recently received Academic All-Big Ten honors for the third time in her career — a clear indication that she is pairing her education and her success in gymnastics.

“I’ve always had a passion for how the body works,” Sheppard said. “Being a gymnast, I’ve had a lot of injuries and I’ve been around a lot doctors. I like seeing people succeed after being hurt or sick, and I’ve just always had a passion for it, which is why I decided to become a health and fitness major.”

Not only is Sheppard dominating in the gym, but she is also projected to be one of the first four student-athletes to graduate from Michigan with a degree in health and fitness. The degree is fairly new to the School of Kinesiology (around 2013), and combines a wide range of topics like sport management and anatomy and physiology.

While Sheppard plans to apply to nursing school after she graduates to continue on her medical path, the degree is flexible since it has a foot in both science and business.

“You get the best of both worlds,” Sheppard said. “If someone were to go the athletic director route, this would be really great for that because you have a bunch of history behind sports and you also learn about the marketing and ethics side of business. It’s also good for if you want to be a personal trainer or a strength and conditioning coach.”

And while neither of these career paths apply to Sheppard, she’s positive that she’s picked the right major. With the program offering real-life learning opportunities through classes and programs, Sheppard has been able to shadow in the midwife section at the University of Michigan Hospital.

She said she enjoyed her time shadowing at the hospital, but Sheppard really lit up when talking about her experience working with children with disabilities at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School.

“I took a pediatric disabilities class, so we learned all about a bunch of disabilities with children and just people in general,” Sheppard said. “One of the assignments was that we had to volunteer at the high school or a sporting event with kids with disabilities. I learned so much about them and I also learned a lot about myself. I just really appreciated them because they were so committed and determined.”

With her gymnastics career winding down and her medical career just getting started, Sheppard has worked hard at combining both aspects of her life to make her Michigan experience as beneficial as possible. On one hand, her degree has enabled her with all of the right experiences to continue with her education.

On the other hand, her final NCAA Regional Tournament as a Wolverine is this weekend, and she couldn’t be more focused on contributing everything she has to her team. Anyone on the sidelines might believe that Sheppard’s life in the classroom is separate from her life in the gym.

But for Sheppard, they’re both connected.

“The four years I’ve been here, there’s been people that come and go because they graduate,” Sheppard said. “You have to learn how to work with them and bond with them, and it’s made me a better person to be able to work with a team, because that’s really important for a nurse to be able to do that.”

Sheppard has left her mark on Michigan history, in the gym and in the classroom. Now, equipped with the qualities she has learned from her team and from her education, she will seek to match that success in whatever realm the future may hold for her.

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