Utah State Athletics
LOGAN, Utah – Nicole Simoneau’s face is focused. Her breathing is calm and controlled. The junior gymnast’s expression gives no sign of trepidation, while her compact, muscular frame displays no hint of weakness or doubt.
She begins the event amidst a choir of cheers from teammates and fans, but her gaze and expression change little, even as she twists and contorts her body in athletic grace between the pair of bars. There is no fear in this young woman’s face, just quiet determination, as if she expects nothing but perfection.
Several spellbinding twists later she caps her performance with a pristine landing. Flashing a smile before the judges and roaring fans, there is little doubt among her teammates that she’s aced the event. Her final score on the bars — 9.850 — is the highest of 18 gymnasts competing in Utah State’s tri-team meet, topping finals by gymnasts from both Brigham Young and Arizona in addition to Utah State. For Simoneau, a three-time second-team All-Western Athletic Conference selection whose career accomplishments include bar scores of 9.800 or higher in 27 of 31 career meets, the event might seem just like another day at the office.
Except for one small and amazing detail: Nicole Simoneau is a young, single mother, and 14 months ago gave birth to a baby boy.
That Simoneau now finds herself back into gymnastics action while also going to school full time and raising a son is no small accomplishment, especially considering she wasn’t sure her gymnastics career would ever continue when she found out she was pregnant. Yet after initial concerns about her future, Simoneau dedicated herself to a Herculean task of taking on motherhood, school and gymnastics, engaging in a vigorous physical training regimen following the birth of her son, Kemper.
“When I first found out I was pregnant, I really didn’t know how it was going to be,” said the Manchester, N.H. native. “Once I had him and I started practicing again, I knew it was going to be hard but I was really determined to get back here and be back with the team.”
Getting back with the team wouldn’t be easy, especially after taking off the entire 2010 season. Not only had her body undergone significant physical changes, but an absence from the events of the gymnastics mat left the 4-foot-11 junior out of competition shape. To get back into prime condition, she’d not only have to re-train her body for the events she had long dominated, but also build a base of endurance capable of withstanding team weightlifting and cardio sessions.
“It was really hard at first,” Simoneau said. “I was really out of shape. I did a lot of endurance and strength. I had to start out really basic and just kind of work my way up, little by little. It took a couple months, at least, to get back to where I am now.”
Nicole’s dedication to get back onto the mat while raising a son was no surprise for her mother, Betty. While she knew her daughter would struggle to balance the demands of school, gymnastics and motherhood, Betty also knew her daughter’s unique drive and motivation for excellence would see the young woman through.
“I just knew it was going to be hard for her,” said Betty, who traveled from New Hampshire to see her daughter compete in USU’s meet against Arizona and BYU. “She had options with the baby, but she chose to bring him with her because he’s her responsibility.
“She handled it. I just knew she could do it. She’s a strong girl.”
Nicole’s mother may never have doubted her daughter’s ability to come back, but her teammates, as well as Aggie head coach Jeff Richards, had their concerns. After realizing that the former All-WAC honoree would give nothing less than a complete effort in her training, their fears quickly diminished.
“For a while I wondered,” said Richards, who is in his third year in Logan. “You know, I wasn’t sure. She said she was going to come back, but I’ll be honest with you in that I wasn’t sure. I knew she could do it, but I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it or not. But to now have her back, she’s doing a great job.”
Senior teammate Lyndsie Boone, who has been teammates with Simoneau since they were freshmen together, said it’s remarkable that Simoneau has come back to form so quickly. Not only did Simoneau share the event-title in bars at the Aggies’ second meet of the year, but she was named WAC Co-Specialist of the Week for her performance in USU’s season-opener against Southern Utah.
“I didn’t know if her body could handle it, coming back,” Boone said. “But she’s doing amazing. She’s our best bar worker right now, and one of the top beam girls too. It’s a little harder for her, but she’s doing great.”
Simoneau may once again be flying high on the bars these days, but her duties as a mom and student-athlete leave little time to taste the fruits of her labor. Her days — filled with intensive training, classes, homework and just being a mom — are long and tiring, and unlike that of any of her teammates.
“It’s hectic,” she said of her routine. “It’s really hard. I get tired a lot, and my day isn’t like the other girls. My day doesn’t end when I get home. I still have to help Kemper, and I do my homework after he goes to bed. It’s a lot of running around.”
Nevermind leading USU’s gymnastic team on the bars, Simoneau truly does it all. Her coach is more than impressed with his star athlete’s ability to make it through a given day, and remains in awe of her ability to meet all the challenges in her life.
“It’s a lot, and she’s learning a lot,” Richards said. “It’s not the same as what every student-athlete out there goes through.
“When she’s done, she goes home and she’s not done. She’s got her son Kemper to take care of, so it just doesn’t stop. That’s not easy on anybody. You’ve just got to keep on going. But I think it’s really making her stronger, and she’s going to be an incredible person for it all.”
Simoneau is quick to point out she couldn’t do it all on her own. With such a hectic daily schedule, having help with watching Kemper has been a must, especially with her mother and family some 2,000 miles away. Fortunately for her, her teammates have been more than willing to take on the role of godmothers.
“They help me out whenever,” Simoneau said. “If I need a babysitter, they offer to watch him, and they are really good when I have to bring him into conditioning or practice. They help out a lot, and the coaches are there too. They watch him when they can. Everyone has been really helpful and supportive.”
Kemper may still be too young to fully appreciate his mother’s accomplishments, but Nicole’s resiliency and dedication haven’t been lost on her proud mother, nor her coach. Soft-spoken and sometimes hesitant to talk about her experiences of the past two years, Simoneau’s story of raising a child while excelling both on and off the gym mat is nothing short of inspirational. It’s a story that nearly brings her mother to tears and one that captures the spirit of competition.
“She’s taken on a lot of responsibility and she’s doing it on her own,” Betty Simoneau said. “It’s not what I expected to happen, but she’s wonderful. She’s taken it all on. It’s her responsibility, and she’s grabbed it and run with it. I can’t tell you how proud I am.”