SALT LAKE CITY — Playing college sports is a dream many high school athletes nurture.
But the reality of collegiate competition isn't quite as glamorous as it is in those teenage fantasies.
For Rebecca Holliday, it was fraught with injury, disappointment and simply the daily difficulties of trying to find balance in a life consumed with school, training and competing for the Utah State gymnastics team.
"No, it was not what I thought it was going to be," said Holliday, who will graduate with a journalism degree this spring. "It was the most rewarding thing I've ever done; but it was also the hardest. I'm glad I did what I did, but being a student-athlete is hard. There is nothing like it. It is every aspect of your life."
Holliday had never heard of Logan, Utah, when an assistant coach called her home in Orange, Calif., her junior year of high school. In an effort to continue her gymnastics career, she and her parents had sent some videos to colleges around the country. One of those who called after watching her highlight DVD was USU.
"They said they'd found it at the bottom of a pile," she said laughing. "And they liked it. They wanted me to come out the next week. I had a great time."
She went on one other trip, but said it was a fairly easy choice to become an Aggie. She loves Logan so much, she talked her younger brother into joining her in the northern Utah town to attend USU as well.
"Once an Aggie, always an Aggie," she said. "It will be weird not to be around these girls once I graduate. But I still have a little time left."
And it is time she cherishes after seriously considering not coming back for her senior year.
"Last year was a really hard year," Holliday said. "I didn't know how I could come back. I talked to my parents about it, and they said, 'Why don't you just quit.' Once I heard that, I was like, 'No! I can't quit. This is where I want to be. I came here to do something and I have to do it."
Her challenge was made more difficult because her enemy was the body she relied on to compete.
In her freshman year she struggled with mononucleosis. In her sophomore year she bruised her heel and missed much of the season. In her junior season, she was performing a back handspring when her knees collided with her face.
Her goal when she came to Utah State was to make it to an NCAA regional championship. She was close her freshman year and one athlete away last year.
"She's been so, so close in the years past," said USU head coach Jeff Richards.
A serious, hard-working student-athlete, Richards saw the toll the disappointments were taking on the gregarious young woman.
"She gets pretty stressed out in life," he said. "So to see her really figure herself out this year and relax and calm down was pretty fun."
So when her body threatened to betray her again in this, her senior season, she made some changes — mentally and physically.
"It was an uphill battle," Holliday said. "It was rough. Ice, rehab — for me, it was really difficult this year."
The rough stuff taught her that regardless of the specifics, she had the ability to make her situation better.
"I had to kind of relax," she said with a grin.
It was small changes that made the biggest difference — slowing her run into tricks, visualizing more, changing her tumbling.
"I was definitely more motivated toward gymnastics," she said.
And the result was reaching the goal she'd set as a freshman — a trip to the NCAA regional championships.
She competed in the all-around last Saturday night in the Salt Lake Regional at the Huntsman Center. The crowd gave her a warm welcome, and she had a good meet — finishing 16th with a score of 38.125.
It was not her best outing. It was not her worst. But either way, it was a victory.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect," she said. "I was pretty nervous coming in. I was glad I was able to calm myself and have a good meet. In past years, I wouldn't have been able to do that. So that was cool. That felt great."
She was the last gymnast to compete in the nearly four-hour meet that included six teams and about a half-dozen individual qualifying gymnasts like her.
She said she didn't realize the entire arena was watching her floor routine until she finished.
"That was great," she said grinning.
"Rebecca really shined tonight," said Richards. "I was really proud of her. To see her go through all that she has, and to come out and do well, it has been exciting."
And when she looks back on her career at USU, she won't think so much about the times she came up short or when her body couldn't handle what was being asked of it, she'll think about how she discovered just how strong she really is — in and out of the gym.
As she reflects, she is reminded of a quote that hangs on the wall of the Aggies' gymnasium. She can't remember the exact words, but she now epitomizes the sentiment.
"It's something about how inside you there is something greater than any obstacle," she said.
And then she adds a bit of her own wisdom, "You can push yourself much farther than you think you can."