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Jan. 19, 2012
By Laura Finley, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Ask anyone on the Penn State women's gymnastics team about Natalie Ettl and you will get the same answer every time.
She's a fighter.
It is not the seven knee surgeries that she has undergone in the past seven years that give her this status, however, as Ettl has overcome all odds and persevered when many people would have quit.
She ignored those who told her a collegiate career in gymnastics would never happen. She walked on at Penn State, earning a scholarship her sophomore year. She won two Big Ten titles back-to-back and became a leader to her teammates. She excelled in a sport that took its toll on her body, finally forcing her to retire from her lifelong passion.
Natalie Ettl is a fighter.
Ettl's love for gymnastics began after her parents heard from their babysitter about their daughter's tendency to jump on couches. In an effort to encourage Ettl to release her energy more productively, her parents signed her up for a Mommy and Me gymnastics class at the age of three.
"From there, gymnastics stuck with me," said Ettl. "It was something I enjoyed. With soccer I didn't want to run up and down the field and softball was another story. Gymnastics was something that brought me joy."
This joy intensified as Ettl continued to compete, dreaming of joining a Division I team after high school. As she prepared for the recruiting process during her junior year, everything came to a halt when she learned she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for a second time.
Instead of competing her senior year and being recruited, Ettl focused on regaining full function of her knee in order to begin training once again.
This time she was only able to train on bars, her best event as luck would have it.
"I had to make my own way to put my name out there," said Ettl. "Universities don't typically give scholarships to athletes who specialize in one event."
With this in mind, Ettl held steadfast to accomplishing her dream, and her persistence finally paid off as she was offered a walk-on position for the Penn State gymnastics team.
Given a second chance, Ettl worked hard her freshman year at Penn State, competing as the lead-off on uneven bars. Her knee problems had yet to suffice though, as she went through another knee surgery on her meniscus at the end of the year.
After more physical therapy, Ettl returned for her second year, moving back into the lineup and anchoring her team on bars.
"I ended up winning a Big Ten title and earned a scholarship that year," said Ettl. "I never dreamed of earning a scholarship doing just one event and then winning the Big Ten title was icing on the cake."
Everything Ettl worked for had finally paid off. She proved to herself and others that she could overcome adversity and still be successful.
"She continues to persevere and continues to push," said senior co-captain Whitney Bencsko. "That's just the type of person she is. She competes because she loves it."
During her junior year, Ettl continued to find success, scoring a career-high 9.975 and defending her Big Ten uneven bars title. Ending her season on a high note, Ettl went back for another meniscus repair and worked hard in physical therapy, but to no avail.
This time her knee was not the same.
After seven surgeries and much thinking, she decided it was time to hang up her Penn State leotard and retire.
"It's not meant to be anymore," said Ettl. "Gymnastics had to end at some point and this is what was set for me. Is it a bittersweet feeling? Yes. But I'm thankful to continue to be a part of the team and watch my teammates succeed."
Ettl was voted co-captain at the start of the 2011-`12 season and although no longer able to compete, she remains a fixture on the team, dedicating herself to supporting her teammates.
"You always know her voice," said freshman Krystal Welsh. "She's always there cheering with us and offering us advice. She's still here fighting for us, fighting for the team."
Head coach Jeff Thompson has noticed Ettl's leadership abilities as well, praising her positive attitude and ability to encourage the team every day.
"I know it's not the season she envisioned, but hopefully when she looks back years from now, the experiences she has during her senior year may be more memorable," said Coach Thompson. "Instead of focusing on herself and her own performance, she gets to share in 24 routines at every meet."
This dedication to helping others also reflects in Ettl's future plans as she hopes to give back all she has learned over the years and earn a master's degree in nursing.
"With my history of injuries, nursing has always been a passion of mine," said Ettl. "I've had so much help in the past and I just want to give back. It's always been something I've wanted to do."
For the average person, multiple surgeries and setbacks would have taken its toll. For Natalie Ettl, it is merely an obstacle that has made her a stronger person, a fighter.
"I give her all the credit in the world because I don't know if I could've done it," said senior Daryl Konsevick. "She faced a lot of adversity and overcoming that made her the person she is. Throw anything at her and she can handle it."