By David Willis
---- — Doctors have informed Jessie Livingston that when she eventually finishes competing in gymnastics, the back pain that has plagued her for the past four years will likely fade away.
But anyone who believes the Andover High senior is going to walk away before the job is done doesn’t know Jessie Livingston.
“Doctors hope the pain will go away with time,” she said. “But I love gymnastics and I love competing for Andover. I love my teammates and coming through for them. I will have time after high school. Right now, I want to have a senior year to remember.”
It was more than three years ago that a fractured back nearly ended Livingston’s gymnastics career before she ever had the chance to compete for the Golden Warriors.
But the 5-foot Livingston not only overcame the odds to return to her sport, she has once again emerged as one of the top gymnasts in Massachusetts and the top all-around competitor for Andover High, which is 2-0 heading into the week.
“She is someone that strives for perfection in everything that she does,” coach Tracy Vadala said. “She came back from an injury that ends most careers, and has been my top girl in the all-around since her sophomore year. She does things most gymnasts can’t do.”
It wasn’t long ago, however, that Livingston didn’t believe she would ever compete in gymnastics again.
A competitive gymnast since childhood, Livingston’s world was thrown into disarray in September 2010 when the then-Andover High freshman was working out with her club team.
“I was doing a move on the bars when I hyper-extended my back,” she remembered. “But I thought I could just work through it so I kept practicing for the next couple of days, which probably made it worse.”
But as the pain grew worse, reality set in that she needed to see a doctor.
“At first, they couldn’t find anything on the X-ray,” she said. “So I had an MRI and bone scan and CAT scans.
“They found a hairline fracture in one of my vertebrae and that I had done damage to my growth plates.”
Even in a sport as brutal and injury-filled as gymnastics — Livingston had already suffered a pair of broken ankles and a fractured knee — this was earth-shattering news.
“She was 14 when it happened,” said her mother, Grace Livingston, in 2012. “You think you are going to walk perfectly your whole life and she’s never going to have a broken back. That’s never going to happen, and then it does.”
Livingston faced a long, difficult recovery. She was forced to wear a back brace and severely limit her physical activity. At the time, it also meant that she might never compete in gymnastics again.
“That is a really devastating injury,” Vadala said. “It’s a career-ending injury for most. You just don’t see gymnasts come back from a broken back. But she worked so hard to regain her abilities and compete again.”
After so much pain and injury, Livingston considered leaving gymnastics for good. But as she rehabbed, she stayed around the Andover High team, and that began to reignite her fire for the sport.
“I definitely didn’t think I would be able to come back,” she said. “Gymnastics is a scary sport, and I thought if I did come back, I would never be as strong as I was.
“Being around the high school team meant a lot to me. They supported me, and I wanted to come back and get better for them, too. They made me fall in love with the sport again.”
She began to return to gymnastics slowly as a freshman, placing fourth in the bars at North Sections.
As a sophomore, she continued to regain her form, winning the all-around in six meets, and added six more victories in the vault — falling only to a boy competing for Methuen. She then led Andover to its first North Sectional title since 2000, taking fourth in the all-around as part of a dynamic duo with Courtney Carver. Livingston then placed a team-best fourth in the all-around at the state meet.
A season later she placed first or second in the all-around in six dual meets, trading firsts with Carver, then earned team-best finish in the all-around at North Sectionals. She has opened this season in style, winning the all-around in the season-opener, then scoring a team-best second in the second meet.
And excelling in the all-around (which combines the score of the vault, floor exercise, balance beam and bars) in so many different events is a unique challenge for Livingston, due to the limitations of her back injury.
“I can’t do any extreme back-bending,” Livingston said. “I can’t do back handsprings or bridges. My back just doesn’t extend like that anymore. So I have to take certain skills out of my routine, some that are easier for other gymnasts, and replace them with different skills. They are tougher, but I make it work.”
This winter will likely be the end of Livingston’s gymnastics career, as she plans to focus on her studies in college, having already been accepted to Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Florida State.
“I just don’t think my back could take it,” said Livingston, who Vadala believes could compete at a Division 1 college if she chose. “Four more years would be too much. Hopefully the pain will subside then.”
But before she calls it a career, Livingston has her eyes set on one more big season.
“After four years I want to go out with a bang,” she said. “I want to help my team make a run at North Sectionals and states. That would be the cherry on the top of the ice cream of my career.”