Illness can't stop Alyssa Sims

LOS ANGELES -- Gymnastics has taught Alyssa Sims much in the decade since she held her 19th birthday party at Shooting Stars Gymnastics in Wykoff, New Jersey. It has improved her strength, her balance and her coordination. She has spent countless hours on YouTube watching videos of her favorite gymnasts and in the gym learning variations of their skills. But when thinking about what she has gained most from the sport of gymnastics, she chooses to look inward.

"Gymnastics has taught me to be strong. It's given me inner growth," says Sims, now 30. "Even if you are exhausted, you have to push through. That's the ultimate test, when you're exhausted and you have to give the best performance you can. That's when you know what you're made of."

Thursday afternoon, she was tested.

Alyssa Roenigk/ESPN

Special Olympics gymnast Alyssa Sims might have been ill with the flu, but she had enough perseverance to compete (and pose) on the big stage at the World Games.

Sims and her team arrived in Riverside, California, nine days ago, and for the past six days she has struggled with the flu. She has felt tired and sick and has been taking medicine and breathing treatments to help control her coughing. She's resting as much as she can and spends a few minutes each day meditating. Still, she has had to miss several practices over the past week.

"It's really been dragging her down," assistant coach Pat Laffey says. "But yesterday, we had podium training, which is when we practice on the equipment we'll use in competition. Alyssa said, 'I'm not sure I'm up to it, but I'm not going to let my family and my country down.' And she pulled herself up and had a great practice. I was so proud."

Sims says she never questioned whether she would perform here in L.A., flu or no flu. She has already overcome much more difficult challenges in order to compete in a gymnastics meet.

Born two-and-a-half months prematurely and weighing only 1 pound, 13 ounces, Sims has cerebral palsy and a learning disability. Although she tried gymnastics as a child, she didn't start training seriously until she was 19 and much older than the other girls at Elite Gymnastics in Hawthorne, New Jersey, where she trains year-round, and on the Special Olympics national team, with whom she is competing in Los Angeles. None of that kept her from competing at nationals in Newark in June and winning four medals, three of them gold, and earning a spot at the World Games.

"I'm so fortunate to be here," Sims says. "Not a lot of kids get to do this. I feel on top of the world. We all take things for granted and spend so much time complaining. We just need to cut out the complaining, do what we love and enjoy life. It's simple."

From the time the first note of her floor routine music, "Uptown Funk" by Bruno Mars, filled UCLA's Wooden Center gymnasium, that's exactly what Sims did.

Her routine wasn't perfect, and she didn't perform it as well as she knows she can. But she dug deep and never gave up. And when she felt tired, she fed off the enthusiasm of the crowd, which clapped along to her music a la a mid-1990s Kim Zmeskal routine. (That reference is for all you gymnastics-philes, like Sims.)

"I felt a little winded during my routine, and I looked down a couple times during my dance moves," Sims says. "But the crowd pumped me up. They were awesome."

Of the gymnastics rotations, the floor exercise is the most universal. It is the easiest for fans to understand and put their clapping and foot stomping behind. It's the only apparatus that is set to music and it is the one time when a gymnast is able to let her personality shine through in the choreography and performance.

It is also the toughest to pull off when you don't feel well. And Sims nailed every moment of her routine.

"Now I need to rest and get my energy up to do it all again on Saturday," she says. "I have one more chance to get it right."

Also during Thursday night's preliminary competition, which will be used for grouping of athletes based on ability level, Sims performed solid routines on bars and beam, and stuck both of her vaults. She competes again on floor, uneven bars, beam and vault on Saturday afternoon.

"It felt wonderful to walk out today with my team," Sims says. "I'm excited to do it again. I'm honored and blessed to be here. I'm just feeling so happy."

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