I crashed, literally and figuratively, in March 2012. I was 21 and driving with some friends back to a cabin outside Breckenridge, Colo., after a night of partying. I was the designated driver, but being sober didn’t keep me from texting. I missed a turn, plunging the car off the mountainside. It rolled four times before landing in a ravine.
I should have died. I could have killed people. Somehow — incredibly — we all walked away. Surviving that crash convinced me there was a purpose in my life, and I had to stop sabotaging my future to find it.
Losing My Identity
I thought I knew my purpose as a sophomore at the University of Nebraska, where I competed on the gymnastics team. But during a practice meet in the fall of 2010, I suffered a career-ending injury.
During my bar routine, I missed my catch and fell. Instead of landing on my feet or stomach, my arms took the brunt of the force. I dislocated both elbows, and surgeons used tendons from my knee to reconstruct them.
At first, I thought I’d bounce back, as I had with other major setbacks in the past. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I broke both my ankles simultaneously during a routine tumbling pass. Once my ankles healed, I had only one week to prepare for the state meet and defend my all-around title, which I had won three years in a row.
I lost the all-around title that year by a mere .025 of a point, but getting to the podium was all the victory I needed. Never before had I pushed to overcome such a challenging obstacle.
I thought I’d recover the same way from my elbow injury, but my doctors advised me otherwise. Returning to my sport would risk further damage. My life as a gymnast was over.
I finished that semester, but then I had to return home to Colorado — my injury meant the end of my career. I was completely lost. Since I was 8 years old, my life had revolved around gymnastics. If I wasn’t at school, I was practicing. If I wasn’t with my family, I was with fellow gymnasts. What would my life even look like now?
As I mourned the loss of the passion I had devoted more than half of my life to, I also began feeling disconnected from my body. Like many young women, I’d struggled with a history of disordered eating and exercise; because I was battling depression in the aftermath of losing my sport, those issues from my past became more greatly magnified.
Falling Deeper in Despair
In 2011, while my elbows were healing, the rest of my health was deteriorating. I was so terrified of gaining weight that I didn’t take a day off from exercise, even with my arms in casts. If I ate a bag of chips, I felt like I had to work out for two hours.
I told myself I was “pushing through” my injuries, that I was prioritizing fitness — but the reality was much bleaker. I was binge eating, using food for emotional support, and compensating with exercise.
I was obsessed with food and the number on my scale. And yet, my biggest fear materialized: I put on 40 pounds that year.
The more weight I gained, the more I abused food and exercise, and the more bad decisions I made for myself and my well-being. I kept focusing on what had happened to me. I kept asking myself where I would be if I hadn’t hurt my elbows.
After my car accident, all I wanted to do was move forward — and I realized that in order to do that, I had to release my past. With encouragement from my family and friends, I started going to therapy, where I was able to work on healing wounds from my past that I’d never confronted, including a history with sexual abuse.
Enduring that trauma and not talking about it had disconnected me from my body and my self: I didn’t love myself, I didn’t trust my body, and I didn’t feel worthy.
I had been through therapy before, but I had always thought of food as my main problem. Eating had been a coping mechanism during my dark times.
But therapy made me realize disordered eating wasn’t the problem; it was a symptom. My real problem had always been insecurity and lacking self-love. That transformation had to start from the inside.
It took a lot of work for me to truly understand that my trauma, my struggles, and all my pain gave me my power. Everything I’d endured made me strong, resilient, and brave — but I had to believe that about myself in order to move forward.
I realized that I wasn’t defined by my sport, my injuries, or my past. I was in control of who I was and what came next.
Climbing Back Up
Once I was able to stop blaming myself for my past and admit that I had disordered eating and exercise habits, I was able to change my approach. When I took charge of my emotions and decisions, I was able to trust myself in every aspect of my life, down to the choices I made about food. I could eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full.
Without a car, I started riding my bike for transportation. Eventually, I started running again — just for the joy of feeling good in my body, instead of as a means to burn calories. That’s when movement stopped being about weight loss.
I was working out and loving it, because I genuinely love it. I started focusing on what I was given rather than what I’d lost, and I realized moving my body was a privilege.
I graduated from Colorado State University in 2013 with a degree in exercise science. Soon after, I started coaching gymnastics and posting my workouts on Instagram. Though I often turned to social media for motivation, it sometimes triggered insecurities.
I didn’t want to perpetuate that for myself or anyone else, so I kept it real: I posted pictures of myself bloated and not bloated, posed and not posed, flexed and relaxed. I shared my journey openly and honestly, and I saw how much people appreciate the truth. It’s incredibly humbling knowing I can be completely transparent and have others embrace me for it.
As my following grew, coaching became a full-time business for me. I earned my personal training certification at the end of 2014. My work in fitness has allowed me to reconnect with my physical self in a way that I couldn’t after my accident, and it’s led me to my true purpose: to love myself and my body, and to help others learn to do the same.
A lot of people who follow me on Instagram now think I’ve always been this way. I make a point to remind them that I’ve had my share of struggles. I post pictures of myself when I was 40 pounds heavier, or of my postpartum belly, because those pictures are part of my story, too. Where I am today has been an eight-years-and-counting journey to establishing the healthiest lifestyle that works for me.
There is no fast weight-loss plan or magic pill. No extreme diets, no punishing workouts. It’s consistency, hard work, and a lot of self-love, over and over again.
Hannah’s Top 3 Success Strategies
1. Focus on what you have. Learning to view movement as a privilege rather than a punishment helped Hannah shift her perspective on health and fitness.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of your story. “Going through dark times wasn’t easy,” Hannah admits, but she believes her struggles have given her an appreciation for adversity and helped her create a better version of herself.
3. Think positive. “How you view yourself is the foundation to your well-being,” Hannah says. Recognizing the power of her thoughts allowed her to take charge of her mental health.
This originally appeared as “Rising From the Fall” in the January/February 2020 print issue of Experience Life.