With every step came a sharp pain that pierced the spine as if a bullet was passing through the flesh. Bryce Sampson, 20, could barely find the power to take another step as he made his way into the gymnastics training room at Ohio State University.
A year removed from his third place All-Around finish at the Junior Olympic National Championships, Bryce had never felt so distant from the sport he loved. For the first time as an aspiring Olympic gymnast, Bryce was fighting an inner-emotional battle that far surpassed the physical ones he had encountered in the gym.
“It was my brain versus my heart; I went back and forth for awhile on the decision,” Bryce recalled.
Bryce was faced with one of the toughest decisions of his life: whether to have surgery on his back to repair two stress fractures and one extremely worn down disc, or to retire and walk away from the sport that he had known for almost 10 years.
Growing up in Warrenton, VA, Bryce had his first interaction with gymnastics at the age of 9 years old. “I was always doing acrobatics as a kid around the house, and my parents would even refer to me as the daredevil of the family,” Bryce recollected.
Bryce’s mother, Stephanie Sampson, took Bryce to his first recreational practice in 2004. It didn’t take long for his mother or coaches to see the gift that Bryce possessed. After his first practice, Bryce was offered a roster spot on the level 4 club team.
However, his mother had some reservations early on if Bryce was really ready for this time commitment. Mrs. Sampson stated, “I explained [to Bryce] that he would have quite a grueling practice schedule but he never flinched. And he never complained.”
Bryce’s first competition came only 3 months after joining the club team.
At this moment Bryce knew he had found his one passion.
Bryce found great success early on in his gymnastics career. His first coach had propelled his understanding of the sport and had molded Bryce’s foundational technique and execution. Bryce was quickly learning that there was much more to this life of gymnastics than just pointing your toes.
He had his first realization during a trip to Ohio State University with his team at 9 years old. When asked about the significance of this moment, Bryce’s face lit up.
Describing the moment with passion, Bryce exclaimed, “[As] Coach Miles Avery watched our team, [I knew] at that moment I really wanted to go to Ohio State, and it was the first time that I looked at a sport [in a way] that had real potential for a future.”
Bryce’s first major obstacle came at the age of 12, where he began to question his commitment to the sport and had lost his drive to succeed. “I almost felt scared to go to practice,” Bryce explained.
With the backing of his parents, Bryce made the brave decision to move to Apollo Sports, a more reputable gymnastics facility. In an effort to recapture the love for the game, Bryce met his new coach Jason Furr.
In the coming year, Bryce experienced a reboot of his relationship with gymnastics. Bryce described this transition as “a complete change in philosophy” and “relearning the fundamentals.”
As Bryce began to find his inner fire for gymnastics rekindled, his trust in Jason grew stronger. However, this did not happen overnight. Jason notes, “When I first met Bryce, I could see the passion and potential in him; he was a diamond in the rough.”
During Bryce’s junior year of high school, he took a one year hiatus away from the sport due to the first appearance of trouble with his back. After many months in therapy and serious rehabilitation, Bryce was determined to not only make it back on the mat but to make it all the way to nationals.
In 2013, Bryce reached the new pinnacle of his career as he placed third All-Around in the Junior Olympic National Championships, along with being granted the opportunity to be a part of the Ohio State Men’s Gymnastics Program. Bryce’s mother described this period of time as “the culmination of all the hard-work, dedication, and perseverance Bryce had put in.”
A year later, Bryce’s back injury came back with a vengeance — describing his injury as “only getting progressively worse.” As the summer of 2014 approached, Bryce would be faced with the harsh reality of sports. Sometimes the body can’t keep up with the heart.
That summer, Bryce questioned many things.
He asked himself, “Why me?” or “Is the possibility of the Olympics worth more to me than my future health?”
After many weeks of self-reflection and time spent with family, Bryce made one of the toughest decisions of his life — to walk away from the game. The emotional pain and tears shed on the day he sat down with his parents to make the decision to leave Ohio State and gymnastics did not mark the end for Bryce.
Today, Bryce has refocused his passion for gymnastics as he coaches alongside his former coach Jason at Apollo. “I try to connect with my kids on a mental level, because I know how hard it can be not only on your body but your mind as well,” Bryce said.
As Bryce wakes up each day, he could easily dwell on the past. But instead, Bryce chooses to have a positive outlook on his opportunities ahead, including a goal of one day opening a major gym of his own.
“Staying humble through the highs and lows is the key to succeeding.” — Bryce Sampson