Mary Jane Otto shares success, motivation

By Sumeya Kalib, Staff writer

Four seniors on the women’s gymnastics team were honored this past weekend at their meet against No. 6 Denver. Suffering a huge fall on bars, the team lost to the Pioneers 197.775-195.025.

The Illini started off strong on vault, where they achieved their second-highest season score of 49. Senior Mary Jane Otto and sophomore Nicole Biondi scored season-highs of 9.875 and 9.825, respectively.

The seniors stepped out on bars to anchor their scores despite a scare from some of their gymnasts. Otto scored a season-high of 9.925 while senior Rachael Donovan tied her career-high of 9.875.

According to head coach Nadalie Walsh, their takeaway from the rotation was to not let mistakes define them.

“Then on bars, I think it just stunted the whole team a little bit to see Lindsay Dwyer miss her routine, because that is something we really never see her do,” said Walsh. “The learning experience is just because one person missed doesn’t mean that another one needs to.”

On beam, the Illini hit a program-high score of 49.175, with routines from sophomore Rachel Borden with a 9.775, Kylie Noonan with a 9.875 and freshman Shaylah Scott tying for third place with a 9.90.

Lastly, the floor was wrapped up with Otto performing a season-high of 9.875, while Noonan scored a 9.90, finishing third in the event. Dwyer performed as an exhibition, and, according to Walsh, she’s good at adding depth to the routine.

It was the team’s first time scoring 49.00+ on three out the four events.

“We wanted them to improve on their vault landing, shapes, and they absolutely did that,” Walsh said. “Same thing on beam: We just wanted them to not have any jitters and know their identity, that they are solid, they are confident, and whether they do it in practice or they do it in the competition, their identity cannot change, and they did that very well today.”

Otto, in particular, was a fighter for the team. The redshirt senior scored her season-best on all four events and all-around, tying for first on bars.

Being on the team for six years, Otto suffered injuries both during her freshman year and last season. The injury last year was from a double-torn achilles. She learned to not let her injury define her as a gymnast.

“In the years I wasn’t able to compete, I think I learned that it’s not my identity, and I’m not defined by the fact that I can’t do gymnastics right now,” Otto said. “I still have a role and a purpose to play and to give to the team, and I just use that to try and be the best supporter and encourager and teammate that I can be. That taught me transferable life skills wherever you’re at.”

She came back stronger than ever after her first injury and produced all of her career-highs the following year. She qualified for the NCAA Championships for all-around and scored the second-highest bar scores in the program (9.975) twice.

The following years demonstrated that Otto was a consistent gymnast on the team. In 2017, she won the Big Ten Championship on bars with a 9.925, which she credits as her most memorable routine because of the exciting atmosphere and the work the team put in.

Now heading into 2018, her fifth year as a gymnast, Otto suffered an injury. Nevertheless, she knew she was going to return for another season.

“When she got injured last year, one of the things that made me absolutely know she was coming back was I knew she was going to do floor and compete a great floor routine,” Walsh said. “It’s just so satisfying, and I think I get tears in my eyes every single time she goes out there to do her routine on floor, because it’s the huge victory stamp on her career and I’m so excited of her and proud of her.”

Otto attributes her support system as her motivation for staying strong. Her friends, her family, the gymnastics team and her husband all helped her “sustain through those obstacles.” 

Walsh was proud Otto was still looking toward her on advice for improvement. Even though she was a good athlete, she didn’t let that fact get to her head and did not accept criticism or help.

She saw Otto “loosen up” and have fun with her teammates despite living another life.

“Mary Jane is very humble. She’s very kind and very proper, but I think I’ve seen her really loosen up and be a little bit more fun-loving,” Walsh said. “On the bus rides grabbing the microphone and yelling karaoke into it no matter how she sounds like, and just seeing her being really engaged with the team despite the fact that she’s not a team member that lives with her teammates.”

Walsh sees her and the other seniors as influences for their underclassmen. Julia Hutcherson is quiet and steady but always cheers her team from the heart. Donovan is stoic and very matter-of-fact, while Haylee Roe is a consistent and dynamic mix in the beam and floor lineup.

With the season coming to an end, with one more home meet next weekend and two away meets before the Big Ten Championship, Otto hopes she’ll leave an impact on the team by valuing human kindness over one’s gymnastics career. She said loving her teammates and acting as a family will do more beyond what she has done on the floor.

“Value people more than to value what you’re doing,” Otto said. “The people around you are going to help you and help make you who you are, and so invest in them and love them, because they’ll be, like, the ones who help you along the way. And really these four years or six will form you so much and develop you so much, and I think that along with your identity isn’t in gymnastics. Your identity is as a person, as a beautiful woman and a beautiful student, so yeah, not to get so caught up in the gymnastics part of it but realize there’s life outside of it.”

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Correction: Originally the story stated, “Despite this being her fifth year as a gymnast, Walsh knew she was going to come back for another season” when referring to the 2017 season. The sentence was changed to clarify that 2018 was Otto’s fifth season with the team. The Daily Illini regrets this error.