After the Arizona GymCats performed their showcase on Saturday afternoon, a long line of fans gathered on the eastern concourse to get autographs. Almost 45 minutes after the event, the last group was at the table. One little girl finally got to the end of the athletes and found the one she was looking for, senior bars specialist Zaza Brovedani.
Brovedani stood up so the girl’s father could take a picture of them with the gift the child had brought. It was a handmade picture featuring bright blue and red letters spelling out “Zaza.”
What did it mean to the athlete who hadn’t competed in 20 months and had missed most of the past two seasons due to injury?
“Honestly, super excited to the point where I almost cried,” Brovedani said. “I’ve been out of commission for a while. So the first time I’m in McKale competing, seeing I have fans is super exciting. It makes me believe in myself, as cheesy as that sounds.”
It almost didn’t happen. Brovedani was a promising freshman, earning high 9.8s and even a 9.900 on the balance beam and uneven bars while competing in every meet. The injuries started the next season when she missed all but four meets her sophomore year due to an injury.
It looked like she was back, though. She ended her sophomore year with a season-high 9.825 on the balance beam in NCAA Regionals. That meet in April 2021 was the last time she got on the competition floor in an Arizona leotard until Saturday’s showcase.
Brovedani suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon before her junior year. She knew it meant surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. It wasn’t like the injuries she had pushed through in the past.
“As soon as I got the diagnosis of a torn Achilles, you’re out for a season,” Brovedani said. “No matter what. No matter how you recover. So that was definitely the first [injury] that was like that.”
It wasn’t something she knew she could come back from. It wasn’t something she was sure she even wanted to come back from.
“It’s hard, for sure,” Brovedani said. “Like, that’s the understatement for all of it. It’s really hard. It’s a lot of work. And I’m gonna be honest, it’s not something I knew I wanted to do at first, because after I have an injury as big as an Achilles rupture, you have to wonder, is this something I can work back from? Am I okay, just doing one event? Like, is this something I want to pursue? And at the end of the day, I still love gymnastics.”
It was even more of a question because she’s not the only family member who has dealt with this kind of injury. Her sister, Talia Brovedani, was a gymnast at the University of Washington. Injury eventually ended her career.
“My sister had a lot of injuries, too, including the same one I’m coming back from, and ultimately she didn’t come back from hers,” Brovedani said. “She tried, and it just wasn’t worth it for her. So I’ve had a lot of talks with her about what that means.”
The challenge isn’t even a gymnastic challenge at first. It’s a life challenge.
“After surgery, it’s kind of just a process of like wiggling your toes,” Brovedani said. “Great, you wiggled your toes. Let’s see if we can move your foot. Okay, great. The ankle is moving. Let’s try and put some pressure on it. The second you get pressure on it, you can’t even walk for a while. You’re just working on standing. It’s tiny, tiny baby steps for a long time and you really have to be patient.”
Even once she was able to stand on her own power, the mental side of the challenge was still there. There’s also the challenge of getting used to the new body that surgery produces.
“It took a lot of time for me to trust my body,” Brovedani said. “Because I was on crutches for so long, like non-weight bearing, that it took me a while to be like, ‘Okay, I can walk now.’ Because it feels weird. My Achilles, there’s a lot of scar tissue in there. So I had to become comfortable, being like, it’s repaired now. I can walk. I can trust it. I can land.”
Getting back on the bars at McKale was a huge accomplishment for both Brovedani and her coaches. She was the first competitor on the bars for the Blue team. Her form was still good in the air. She stuck her landing. It was her only routine of the day and it will be her only event going forward, but the moment was as close to perfect as could be expected.
“Two years,” said Arizona head coach John Court. “With a new bar routine. Owned the moment. Did a fantastic job. I’d like to see that about eight more times during the year.”
For the gymnast, things weren’t as calm on the inside as they looked on the outside.
“Nerve-racking,” Brovedani said. “I was super nervous. I felt like a freshman again. I had to like recompose myself because I hadn’t felt it in so long. The type of pressure you feel in here in front of an audience is definitely different.”
Some of those watching her closest were her own teammates.
“I’m so proud of Zaza,” said teammate Jessica Castles as the two prepared to leave McKale Center.