By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala - Born five weeks early. A week in neonatal intensive care. Chronic childhood illnesses. Allergies, Asthma, ADHD. Not exactly ideal conditions to develop an elite athlete.
Still, here she is. Auburn's Caitlin Atkinson, the SEC's Gymnast of the Year. Heading home to Texas for one last hurrah, the NCAA Championships.
"Even though I did face all of that adversity when I was younger, and even still now, I really think that it's made me the athlete I am, and allowed me to really be able to push through most things," Atkinson said.
Pushing through. That's Atkinson's approach.
"I never saw it as a bad thing. I just thought, `This is who I am. I'll deal with it and keep going,'" she said. "Never focused on it, or dwelt on it. Just pushed it to the side. `I can manage it. Let's go.'"
Despite the setbacks, Atkinson became an extraordinary gymnast. College coaches called.
Caitlin narrowed her choices to two schools in the same state, Auburn and the University of Alabama.
She liked Auburn's facilities, and the straight talk from head coach Jeff Graba and his staff.
"They told me the things I needed to work on," Caitlin recalled. "They said, `You have the skills but your form's not there.' And the fact that they were willing to tell me that as a recruit really assured me that they were going to be straight up with me. They weren't putting on an act for me while being recruited. They were going to tell me how it is, and we were going to have a truthful basis from both sides, so that was something that really meant a lot for me.
"Then I visited and just driving down College, I fell in love with it," she said. "It was one those things where you know you're supposed to be here, you just get that feeling. I knew that. I had that feeling that this is for me."
Auburn offered something else that appealed to someone accustomed to being an underdog.
"I knew that I could have an impact," she said. "That I might have a small impact if I went to another school like Alabama, but I knew that coming here I could have a major impact and that I could really help this program get to where it's gotten today.
"I love that underdog role. I love being able to prove people wrong and showing them that, just because we weren't the best way back when, doesn't mean that we aren't coming into our own and we aren't becoming great," Atkinson said.
Anchoring all four events, Atkinson has helped Auburn become one of the nation's premier programs.
The Tigers this season earned a No. 1 regional seed for the first time, advancing to NCAAs for the second straight year.
"I think that I'm a big part of that because of my teammates and because of my coaching staff. They've pushed me to get better," she said. "I've been able to help this program get to where it's at. I want it to go further. I want us to climb in the rankings. I want to look back and say, `I helped that.' That was part of my decision. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself."
Atkinson earned first team All-America honors this season on beam and in all-around, which she won in four meets.
In spite of that success, she says being named the SEC's top gymnast came as a "complete shock."
After more than 17 years of training, starting at age four, Atkinson will take the floor for the final time this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, with family and friends making the four-hour drive from her hometown in Houston.
"It is going to be a little bittersweet. We're at nationals. Obviously, that's the sweet part. Getting to compete with my team. A little bitter, just because it is going to be my last competition," Atkinson said.
"I'm glad it gets to be at home for me. I'm excited that my whole family is going to be there. It's just really more exciting than it is sad, just because I kind of see it as a celebration of my career," she said.
The emotions will be intense, just like they were on Senior Night, when Atkinson won the all-around with a season-high 39.570 against Arizona State. Pushing through. It's what Caitlin does best.
"I know that, when it's go time, those emotions are going to be to the side because I have a job to do," she said. "I have to do my job for my teammates. They're counting on me."
Caitlin Clutch. One of Auburn's best.
"I have loved every second of being here," Atkinson said. "Auburn without athletics is absolutely amazing. There's no better place to be. Auburn with athletics is a million times better. I have loved every experience. Having everyone who's willing to help you, as long as you're willing to ask and make the efforts. Anyone is willing to help you and give you a hand. Whether it's tutors, mentors, it's your coaches, it's nutritionists, psychologists.
It couldn't be better," she said. "I'm blessed that there haven't been any moments where I sat here and said, `Man I really wish this, this, this and this could be better.' There are always times where, `The grass is greener on the other side.' But in hindsight, the grass is greener at Auburn. It really is. I love it. I love the Auburn Family. I couldn't have picked a more perfect place, honestly. It's magnificent."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer