Stout sat out last year with an injury.

Amy Farnum,

Early in her career, Arkansas gymnast Michelle Stout made a name for herself as one of the nation’s best, becoming the program’s first-ever first-team All-American in 2008. Now in her fifth year with the Razorbacks, Stout is revered for her perseverance and fortitude as she returns to competition after a grueling injury.

Following a fourth-place finish in the all-around at NCAA Championships in 2009, Stout was ready to finish her stellar career with a flourish and make her senior season one to remember. The season was memorable alright, but not for the reasons Stout thought it would be. Instead, she suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear during the 2010 preseason and spent the year recovering.

“It was definitely pretty devastating at first,” Stout said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back. It was really hard having to miss my senior year … you look forward to it for four years. I was really excited to have a strong senior year, and then to not be able to compete at all was frustrating.”

“It was devastating for her because she had planned on finishing her career on a high note and helping the team,” said co-head coach Mark Cook.

A native of Endwell, N.Y., Stout underwent surgery to repair the tear and the doctors were optimistic she would recover well, but it would be a long process.

“I started the long road to recovery [after surgery],” Stout said. “I couldn’t do much. I was in a cast and on crutches for about two-and-a-half months. Once I got out of the cast into a boot I was able to do a lot more. I did a little bit each and every day until I was able to get back and actually start doing some gymnastics.”

In the meantime, Stout attended practice and traveled to meets, serving as the team’s personal cheerleader and helping in small ways like playing floor music.

“I was still able to be there in a supportive role even though I wasn’t contributing routines and scores,” Stout said. “It was definitely a good learning experience for me to see that side, being removed from the action and seeing how the team works and the dynamics of the whole program. To be able to be really encouraging and helpful to my teammates in that way really helped me grow as a teammate.”

An Achilles’ tendon tear is a somewhat common injury in women’s gymnastics.

Just last week, Georgia freshman Kaylan Earls suffered a season-ending tear and last month current U.S. National Team member Vanessa Zamarripa of UCLA – the defending NCAA vault champion – had her season end abruptly due to the injury. Former Georgia star Courtney Kupets forged through the same injury in 2008 and came back to win the all-around at the 2009 NCAA Championships.

“The question is how do you handle it and what do you do with it,” Cook said. “It is a long recovery period – eight or nine months – and then there is the psychological aspect of it. Michelle did all the right things and set herself up to come back and compete.”

Stout said it helped that she knew other gymnasts who had torn their Achilles’ tendon in the past.

“I had an old teammate from club that had done it years ago,” Stout said. “I talked to them a little bit about the recovery process and how long things took. That was helpful and encouraging to know that other people had come back and been successful.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in May, Stout had the option of not applying for a medical redshirt and competing another year collegiately. But that’s not how she wanted things to end.

“I’m so excited and fortunate that I’m able to have a fifth year and be able to finish out my career on my terms rather than due to an injury,” Stout said.

Stout will compete on the uneven bars and vault this season – she is an All-American in both events. She had planned to try to come back on floor exercise as well, but the rigors of the constant landings aggravated her Achilles.

“I wanted to make sure I was going to be able to contribute in some way rather than get hurt again,” Stout said.

Arkansas opened the season at No. 4 Oklahoma last weekend, and although her marks may have been a little off her career highs, Stout was thrilled to be back out on the competition floor.

“I was definitely nervous, which was weird for me because I don’t generally nervous for meets,” Stout said. “The fact I was coming back from an injury and it had been almost two years since I competed, it was definitely nerve-wracking, but it felt really good to compete again. It was such an amazing feeling, and I’m really excited to build off of that for the rest of the season.”

In addition to welcoming back an All-American caliber gymnast, Cook believes Stout’s leadership and experience will make a huge impact for a team that has just one other senior and a combined group of nine freshmen and sophomores.

“She’s been through competition at the highest level, and a serious injury that tested her fortitude,” Cook said. “I think it is inspirational to the other kids to see her come back from that and she still wants to compete. She didn’t have to do it … she had graduated, but it was taken away from her before she was ready. She loves to compete, and wanted to have that last experience that she didn’t have her senior year.”

No. 10 Arkansas will play host to No. 9 Alabama to start the Southeastern Conference season in a home-opening meet on Friday, Jan. 14.