Sitting next to her parents amongst a sea of green and white decorations, Olivia Zsarmani looked up and pointed to her cheeks saying that her face hurt.
“I just can’t stop smiling,” she said.
Between the friends and family packed into the KPAC gym in Troutman and the two sheets of paper in front of her on the table, she had all the reason in the world to smile. She just needed a pen.
“I can’t believe we forgot a pen,” Kristie Phillips, owner of KPAC, said with a laugh.
After a pen was handed to her by one of the people in the crowd, Zsarmani signed her name, becoming the newest addition to the prestigious Michigan State gymnastics team.
“This is amazing,” Zsarmani said. “I’m so blessed to have this opportunity and I’m super excited. This has always been a dream of mine.”
For Zsarmani, that dream came true on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t all that long ago that her dream was in doubt, something that made her commitment to Michigan State even sweeter.
In early 2020, while competing in a vault event in Kansas City, she came down awkwardly and crumpled to the floor. She had suffered a spiral fracture of her fibula, an injury that, due to the physical nature of gymnastics, is not often one that gymnasts can come back from.
“When you see your child cry, a child that never cries when they’re hurt, it was traumatic,” her father, Xavier Zsarmani said. “We didn’t know how severe it was, but we quickly found out. Some doctors didn’t have great things to say.”
“I remember running from halfway across the gym,” Phillips said. “I immediately got on the phone with our athletic trainers and we found the best doctor in the area and we had (the surgery) done that night.”
When the surgery was complete, Zsarmani had a plate and eight screws holding together the bones of her lower leg and a long rehabilitation process was about to begin. Over the next 13 months, she still returned to KPAC every day to work on strengthening other aspects of her body while her legs healed.
“The kid was in here 4.5 hours a day,” Phillips said. “She couldn’t do a whole lot, but she filled that time with productivity working on her shoulder and hip flexibility and increasing her upper body strength. She missed only a handful of days that entire year.”
Zsarmani was still unable to do full routines until shortly before she competed in the North Carolina Championships this past March. But when the time came, in her first tournament in over a year coming off serious injury, she placed 15th in the bar routine with a score of 9.625.
“She wasn’t even 100% for that tournament, she was probably about 80%,” Phillips said. “She performed her heart out.”
“She was motivated to come back,” Xavier Zsarmani said. “Watching her for the first time after coming back, it was amazing to see her level of concentration to put that injury out of her mind.”
“Olivia came back even better than she was before the injury,” her mother, Tonya Zsarmani added.
Olivia, however, never had any doubt that she would come back stronger and better than she was at the time of her injury.
“I didn’t really listen to what the doctors were saying,” Olivia said with a chuckle. “I took my time and did everything I needed to do with my physical therapy and worked really hard in the gym.”
Once she was able to prove to colleges that she was every bit the gymnast she was before her injury and then some, the scholarship offers began rolling in. After losing out on making unofficial visits during her junior year at South Iredell due to her injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, she received important advice from her coach and her parents about her recruiting process: see it all the way through.
“I’m really glad she got to go through the experience,” Phillips said. “To see her getting multiple offers was awesome. It made her feel really good and she deserves to feel good because she’s worked her butt off to get here.”
Ultimately, Zsarmani chose Michigan State among all her other offers based on the feeling that the campus in East Lansing, Michigan, gave her.
“The team and the campus just felt like home,” she said. “The campus is beautiful and the coaches are amazing.”
Even with her collegiate career still ahead of her, she has left a mark on people that they won’t soon forget.
“I was so emotional watching her go through this process,” Tonya Zsarmani said. “For her to have the injury she did and for colleges to believe she was good enough to compete at the highest level was the most emotional part.”
“This is a dream come true,” Xavier Zsarmani said. “We’re just grateful.”
“I just feel blessed to be a part of this young lady’s life,” Phillips said. “She has truly inspired me. Even on days I didn’t want to be here, I wanted to be here for her. She does things that you can’t teach.”
Zsarmani made her final decision after a discussion with her parents on Sunday night, just three days before she put pen to paper.
Speaking of the pen, when they finally found one, Xavier Zsarmani tried to find its original owner after he, his wife, and Olivia had all signed the papers officially making her a Spartan. That person told him to keep it.
“That pen is worth way more to you now that it ever could be to me.”
Xavier agreed and put the pen back in his pocket, forever a souvenir from Olivia’s first step into collegiate gymnastics.