Widener meeting challenge of gymnastics, life

EVERETT — As an elite gymnast, Jordan Widener knows about doing difficult and sometimes dangerous things. The trick is to make them look easy.

But make no mistake, Widener knows about hardship, too. The kind of misfortunes that will never be easy.

The 18-year-old Widener, who lives in Snohomish and graduated from Glacier Peak High School earlier this month, is one of Snohomish County’s most promising young gymnasts. Good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of California in Berkeley, where she will start school in the fall.

But Widener’s considerable gymnastics accomplishments are even more remarkable in light of two significant disabilities. In the second grade she was found to have dyslexia, a brain disorder that results in learning problems, particularly with reading and writing. About five years later, and even as she was starting to excel as a young gymnast, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Widener deals with her dyslexia by allowing extra time for studying and with the help of a tutor. For her diabetes, she monitors her blood sugar regularly and gives herself several daily injections of insulin.

Yes, this double dose of adversity seems unfair, and she admits to occasional “Why me?” moments.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Man, why did I get stuck with this? What the heck is wrong?’” Widener said. “But the way I look at it, there are people way worse off than I am. People who have cancer or live in third-world countries. They’d probably kill to have the life I have. So you just have to put it in perspective.

“I don’t have the right to complain,” she said. “I should be thankful.”

For several years Widener has trained at gymnastics five hours a day, five days a week. School is another big part of her day, including homework at night — and compared to other students she probably needs an extra hour or two of studying a night because of her dyslexia.

Meanwhile, diabetes is a hovering presence in her life.

“There are times,” she said, “when it’s all really overwhelming. Some days you just want to sit there and cry because it’s so hard. Sometimes I just want to take a break. I’m thinking, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ But I just have to work through it because there are always going to be hard times in life.”

“I’m sure there’ve been times when she’s been ready to quit gym or when she’s been upset about school,” said her mother Jeanette Widener. “But you just have to keep going. So you say, ‘How are we going to deal with this? How can we make this work for her? What’s the next step?’”

Through it all, Widener continues to achieve at a remarkable level. She finished high school with a cumulative 3.75 GPA while taking such senior classes as pre-calculus, third-year German and British literature.

She has found creative ways to compensate for her learning disability. When her British lit class read the Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations” recently, Widener obtained an audio version so she could listen while following the words on the page. By hearing and seeing the words together, “it makes more sense to me,” she said.

Though college will be decidedly more difficult academically, Widener nevertheless plans to study bioengineering with the goal of either going on to medical school or perhaps doing medical research.

In gymnastics, meanwhile, she will be continuing a sport she began as a preschooler living in Augusta, Ga. She reached Level 10 in 2010, and in April of this year she was the Senior C regional Junior Olympic champion in the floor exercise and tied for second in all-around. She is a three-time national Junior Olympic competitor.

Her diabetes does not inhibit her gymnastics, though it is always an issue, particularly during meets. The stress of competition triggers a boost in adrenalin, which in turn causes a jump in her blood sugar level. As a result, she usually finishes the meet with a headache “because my blood sugar is so high,” she said.

Still, she has achieved brilliantly in recent years. A product of Everett’s Leading Edge Gymnastics Academy, Widener “is probably one of the most talented gymnasts we’ve had walk through these doors,” club owner Sheila Bath said.

“She’s such a beautiful gymnast,” Bath added. “She has so much talent. And even with all these (obstacles), she just doesn’t let it stop her.”

As she goes forward, Widener is aware her path will become even more challenging. She knows it and accepts it.

“I want to do college gymnastics and I want to get an education in bioengineering, so I have to take these steps to get there,” she said. “The time and dedication I’m going to have to make will definitely be difficult, but I take pride in my work ethic.

“It’s going to be really hard, but really fun,” she said.

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