In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its third annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. We continue the series with this story from Daily Sports Writer Shira Zisholtz.
The day was Nov. 7, 2018, when Anna Abrams’ dreams came true.
Donned in maize and blue and accompanied by her parents, she signed a National Letter of Intent that allowed her to join the Michigan women’s gymnastics team.
The Wolverines were bringing in a big recruiting class that year, but this signing was special.
Anna was just 13 years old, and in a wheelchair.
Team IMPACT is an organization that allows children aged 5-16 with disabilities to be part of an athletic experience that would otherwise not be possible. The child gets matched to a team at a university and becomes part of that respective program for two years.
Anna has mild cerebral palsy in her legs, but strives to maintain an active lifestyle. She has danced for more than 10 years and previously took gymnastics lessons, plays Miracle League softball and swims. Her family started a sled hockey team in their area, and they play tennis with her and her friends.
Knowing her daughter’s love for sports, Rhonda Abrams researched different organizations that would allow Anna the opportunity to find something new and be part of something bigger.
One day at work in the C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, Rhonda ran into someone who recommended Team IMPACT for Anna.
“I researched different organizations and stuff, but Team IMPACT seemed to be the best suit for us,” Rhonda said. “They set this up and then took a step back, so all of this has been by the team and by Michigan. But if it weren’t for Team IMPACT, this wouldn’t have happened. We are so grateful.”
On the surface, Team IMPACT is focused on the lives of the kids that go through its program. But what isn’t always recognized is how the child changes the team’s life, too.
“(Team IMPACT) kind of lets us be a part of our community in a way that we wouldn’t typically,” senior Maggie O’Hara said. “We get to interact with fans for a very small period of time, after the meets, but being able to actually share a team role with a younger kid who looks up to us — and who we get to be a friend to, and they’re a friend to us, is super cool.
“Anna brings a lot of life to our team. She shows us a different perspective that we wouldn’t typically get on a daily basis. She just kind of approaches everything with a ‘Why not’ attitude, and I think that’s really special for us to see because we don’t typically have a lot of interactions that are like, ‘Why can’t I do this,’ or ‘Why shouldn’t I do this.’ And she’s kind of, like, ‘Well, I might not be able to do it the same way but let me show you how I can do it, too.’ ”
As a member of the team, Anna fits right in — the wheelchair, the age gap, the basic difficulties don’t faze her.
Her teammates have made an effort to spend time with her on and off the floor, in and out of the practice facility.
“I would say last year, she kinda stuck to her people,” O’Hara said. “She was pretty close to me and (student assistant coaches Sam Roy and Polina Shchennikova). But this year, she’s definitely opened up to more people.”
This past year, Anna’s second year with the program, the team took time to start visiting her outside of the gym. They played with her dogs at her house, and even spent a day swimming with her. All that time they spent with her allowed her relationship with the team to grow even more.
Now, she’s not just close to a select group of people. Instead, she fits right in with all 15 Michigan gymnasts and two student assistant coaches — the wheelchair, the age gap, her condition, none of them stand in the way of being a part of the team.
Anna’s favorite part of being on the team is just “hanging out with them,” she said. “They are my sisters.”
On her first day on the team, Anna was told to bring her energy and open up to be a part of the tight-knit family that is Michigan women’s gymnastics.
“And she took it to heart,” O’Hara said.
When she walks into the gym, she demands a hug from everyone. She runs floor music during practice. She whips around the facility to keep up with everyone else, making sure to be everywhere she can to stay engaged. She loves to be in the locker room with her teammates.
Meet day is the best day for Anna. When the Wolverines are at home, she has the same gameday routine as the rest of the team, even down to showing up at the same time as everyone else. She wears a warm-up outfit, gets her hair and makeup done, and gets a block ‘M’ tattoo to wear. She sits in every team huddle and dances around to music before the meet.
Not only does the team make sure to include her in all pre-meet rituals, but Anna is also out on the floor with them having fun during competition.
“When we’re out on the gym, me and her are always goofing off on the sidelines and just joking around and having fun,” Shchennikova said. “I’ll ride on her wheelchair a lot.”
But even in the moments that aren’t as fun, Anna’s there, too.
“When we’re in a tight situation and we’re all squeezing hands, she’s right in there with us,” O’Hara said. “It’s just reminding her that we’re doing this for our team.
“She’s very much there with everyone else.”
Anna’s life isn’t easy, by any means. And yet, she is the brightest, most positive girl in the room at all times.
“She never comes in with a bad attitude and (the team is) like, ‘Wow,’ ” O’Hara said. “I knew a lot of people who never even knew what CP was and didn’t realize the extent that it could be. And she comes in and has the best attitude and wants to be there and she loves being there and she loves the people.”
With a packed schedule and the stresses of college life, gymnasts can come into the practice facility complaining that they’re tired or sore. But Anna will come in after a 45-minute commute from Commerce Township excited to be there. And that wakes them up.
“It does remind us how fortunate we are to get to do what we do, but also how special it is that we get to have her on our team,” O’Hara said.
“You can have an injury and feel sorry for yourself,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “And yet, Anna’s been in a wheelchair and she makes no excuses. She just has a positive outlook. She goes and does the things that she wants to do.
“Her attitude on life is just so positive and happy and smiling and I think that when times get a little bit hard for us you always have to remember whatever you’re going through there are other people suffering a lot greater hardships. So, put a smile on your face, chin up, you’ll make it through.”
When asked how she keeps such a great attitude, Anna doesn’t have an answer, and neither does her mom.
“This is literally her outlook, all the time,” Rhonda said.
Because Team IMPACT is just a two-year program, Anna has to “graduate” from the team now that the season is over. But she knows that her sisters aren’t going anywhere.
Now, with a whole new rolodex of best friends and sisters that she can keep in touch with, she’ll grow up being able to tell people that she was a part of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team.
“I’m sad to go,” Anna said.
Rhonda then looked at her daughter, smiled, and said:
“All good things must come to an end, right?”