JerQuavia Henderson didn’t hear the pop as she launched from the springboard. Flipping through the air before landing, she immediately rolled to her back and felt a sting in her right leg. Instructed to lay still on the mat, Henderson was carried to the training room where she learned she’d ruptured her Achilles tendon. “I was heartbroken,” she says.
The setback in December 2019 came during a practice two weeks before her freshman season on the Iowa women’s gymnastics team, forcing Henderson to undergo surgery. It was the start of a remarkable recovery that took Henderson from a walking boot to Big Ten champion in a little more than a year.
Henderson’s rehab goals started small. To regain range of motion in her feet, the Peoria, Illinois, native repeatedly picked up marbles with her toes and dropped them into a cup. She swapped her walking boot for a shoe to see how far she could walk without a limp. She transitioned from walking to running on an antigravity treadmill and progressed to weight training twice a week.
Some of the biggest gains were mental. Henderson sat with coach Larissa Libby to watch the vault—the event that caused Henderson’s injury—analyzing performances and viewing gymnastics from a new perspective. “I learned my sport from the outside in,” she says. “That made me a better gymnast because I saw how to fix things other girls were struggling with or that I found myself doing.”
Before her sophomore season began, Henderson attempted the vault for the first time since her injury. When she stuck the landing, Henderson was in tears—but this time they were full of joy and gratitude for her trainers and coaches. “It felt so good to get back to something I initially thought I’d never get back to,” says the sociology major. “That made me very confident that I was ready.”
Henderson proved that last season, becoming a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while helping the GymHawks win their first Big Ten title and climb to a program-best No. 7 national ranking. In the floor competition, she became the fourth conference champion in school history by earning a share of the Big Ten title. She also tied for first in the event at NCAA Regionals, earned second-team All-America honors from the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association, and was named College Gym News Comeback Gymnast of the Year. “The only word I can use is amazing,” says Henderson. “To be part of a team where you go up for an event and they look at you like, ‘We trust you.’ That’s what it was for all of us.”
As her junior season of gymnastics begins in January, Henderson is ready to prove that last year was only the start of a promising Iowa career. Says Henderson: “I think I’m capable of much more, and I don’t have that excuse of just coming back.”