Amy Farnum, NCAA.com

University of Florida gymnast Maranda Smith had said her goodbyes to the Gator faithful at Senior Night at the O’Connell Center last March, and then had her last opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd when the school hosted NCAA Championships in April. In Smith’s mind, her long, successful gymnastics career had come to an end.

But when No. 3 Florida hosts No. 10 Nebraska on Jan. 7 to open the 2011 season, Smith will begin a rare sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, giving her a chance to showcase her talents once again in front of the O’Connell Center crowd.

Like most gymnasts, Smith was always flipping around the house as a young child, and her parents thought her energy needed some direction.

“I taught myself cartwheels and round-offs before I ever started gymnastics,” said Smith. “When my parents were looking for a preschool, they actually found one that was at a gymnastics club, and during our playtime we took gymnastics classes.”

The native of Placerville, Calif., channeled that energy into stellar skills, training at the Byers Gymnastics Center and becoming a standout gymnast at the Junior Olympic level.

Growing up in the Golden State, it was only natural that Smith had dreamed of attending UCLA since she was 12 years old. Although she was recruited by other schools, Smith followed her heart and became a Bruin for the 2006 season.

“I was really excited when I first got there,” said Smith. “I had only been there for about two weeks before my injury occurred. The wind was taken from me. I was going to the school of my dreams … my first competition I did three events and did very well, but then in the second competition my leg was killing me. The next day I found out I’m done for the season. It was kind of hard to believe at first. I never expected something like that to ever happen.”

Doctors diagnosed Smith’s shooting pain in her leg as a stress fracture in her shin, and advised her to wait it out and let it heal.

“The doctors said if I took one more wrong landing, I could have a compound fracture in my leg,” said Smith. “In my mind, it was worth it because I just wanted to compete. I waited six months before I actually had surgery, hoping it would heal on its own. I would get x-rays every three or four weeks and nothing changed … there was no healing.”

Six months later, Smith was faced with a tough decision – undergo a tough surgery to possibly compete again, wait to see if the injury would heal on its own, or end her gymnastics career prematurely.

“I chose the surgery route, thinking it was going to be a quick, easy fix,” said Smith. “The day I woke up from my surgery, I realized that would not be the case. I didn’t listen to the fact that gymnasts, and athletes in general, really don’t come back after a surgery like I had.”

Surgeons opened Smith’s knee and drilled a titanium rod into her tibia along with three screws to hold it in place. The rod strengthened her tibia, making it impossible to split in half. However, after the surgery, Smith was in severe pain and wore a full leg cast for four weeks. After the cast was removed, she remained on crutches for almost six weeks until she could walk on her own.

“It was a slow process to become just a regular person again, much less an athlete,” said Smith.

Back at UCLA in the fall semester of 2006, Smith was discouraged during her rehabilitation, and still in pain.

“Just as I was trying to regain all of my strength back, all of the other girls were progressing,” said Smith. “I felt like I was falling even farther behind.”

Smith decided to transfer to a junior college in hopes of eventually transferring when she was ready to compete again. About six months later, Smith also found out she was having problems with screws in her leg, and the doctors removed them.

“Once they took the screws out, I was able to finally go to the gym again, and it was a little less painful,” said Smith. “I started doing gymnastics again because I was coaching. During my breaks, I would play around and slowly started getting skills back.”

As she continued training, that desire to compete returned and she discussed transferring with her parents and her coach.

“I felt I couldn’t give up and wanted to try again,” said Smith. “I worked on my own and with my old coach. I put recruiting videos together and would e-mail coaches and tell them my situation and progress after my injury.”

One of those coaches was the University of Florida’s Rhonda Faehn, who had initially recruited Smith out of high school.

“Since I already had a relationship with her and knew her coach very well, (the coaching staff) felt we should go out and see her and talk to her and see what her desire and ambition was after coming back from such a grueling injury,” said Faehn.

“It all came together in the end that I had enough skills and a good bar routine to earn a place on the Florida team,” said Smith.

Since arriving in Gainesville in 2008, Smith has competed in all but one meet for the Gators, becoming a four-time All-American and serving as a key contributor for the squad.

“Right from the start, she adjusted so quickly and so well and fit in great with the team,” said Faehn. “She’s a super hard worker and passionate for the sport.”

Mainly a specialist on the uneven bars in her first season, Smith returned in 2009 ready to make an impact.

“She did an unbelievable job on all-around as a sophomore,” said Faehn. “A couple meets into our season we were lacking such depth on balance beam that I looked at Maranda, and asked her to do a routine even though I knew she hadn’t done one in years. It had been probably three or four years since she competed on beam and she ended up hitting for us every single meet. It just shows that she would make any sacrifice for the team … she really glows on the competition floor.”

After a very successful third season at Florida in which she helped the Gators claim a Southeastern Conference title and third-place finish at NCAA Championships, Smith was pretty sure her career was over, but there was a small chance she could return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Faehn and Smith had joked about the possibility of Smith coming back for another year, and then the joking grew more serious.

“We talked about it, and thought why not apply (to the NCAA) and see what happens,” said Smith. “I would have to get into graduate school as well.”

“The whole time (waiting for the decision) I was telling myself that this does not happen to a lot of athletes so I didn’t want to get my hopes up that I would be coming back,” said Smith. “While I was at home in California, I was working and doing things that I would be doing if I wasn’t going to be a gymnast again.”

Smith received word in June that she was granted the sixth year, and then crammed for the GRE for two weeks and applied to graduate school.

After being accepted to grad school, Smith then had to do a complete switch to get in an athlete’s mindset again.

“It all happened really fast,” said Smith. “I didn’t practice at all during the summer. I had a regular gym membership and I would do spinning classes. I hadn’t flipped over for three and a half months until I showed up for school in August.”

"We're very excited for Maranda that she has been granted a sixth year of eligibility," Faehn said. "Maranda is a great leader and competitor. I’m sure the Gator fans will enjoy seeing her compete for another year. She has been and will continue to be a wonderful ambassador for the University of Florida and the sport of gymnastics.”