If you didn't know Natalie Ettl, you couldn't be blamed for thinking she was never meant to do college gymnastics.
You might bet that with seven surgeries on the same flawed right knee, she would never earn a Division I scholarship.
You would probably think there was no way she would ever win anything, much less two consecutive Big Ten uneven bar titles.
But if you didn't know senior Natalie Ettl, a former walk-on and a captain on the Penn State women's gymnastics team, then it might surprise you to find out that you were wrong.
Natalie Ettl's gymnastics career has been all about overcoming challenges. But at first, it was just about overcoming her couch.
Ettl started doing gymnastics when she was only two years old, after some gymnastics of her own in the house, her mother Beth Ettl said.
"The woman that was watching her said we had to do something with her because she was jumping off the couch," Beth Ettl said. "So then we took her to a little tiny-tot class in a gym that was near our home on Wednesday nights."
The young athlete showed an aptitude for gymnastics from the start, and fell in love with the sport right away. As she continued to progress through the ranks of gymnasts at her local gym, Ettl began to work under Jim Chudy, a coach Ettl attributes much of her current success to today.
The respect was mutual, as early on, Chudy recognized Ettl's leadership skills and determination, both of which would play a key role in her later career.
"She was a hard worker and an amazing team player," Chudy said. "Great at cheering on her teammates and setting an example with hard work, discipline, and just a wonderful asset for any coach to have on a team."
Ettl's dream was to compete in Division-I college gymnastics, where those team skills could prove invaluable. The only problem was getting there.
But on the surface, why not? The aspiring gymnast won two Wisconsin all-around championships, three state vault championships and two state uneven bars championships during her high school career.
Only, her tragic flaw wasn't apparent on the surface. It was only obvious on her medical record.
THE DEATH OF THE DREAM?
Ettl's only fault as a gymnast was her right knee -- the reason a state champion athlete might not be able to compete in the sport she loved ever again.
Ettl's inferior knee meant that anyone looking at the talented gymnast sitting in her house during her junior year of high school would have seen a girl with no scholarship offers from any D-I school and a potentially broken dream.
In high school, Ettl had five knee surgeries on the same knee -- each injury coming from the gym -- with a lengthy rehab after each one.
In order: a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered on floor routine and a surgery to repair the ligament in January 2006; a surgery to repair the same ACL torn on the same floor routine a year-and-a-half later; a surgery to fix a complication from the second surgery shortly after; a surgery to repair yet another complication from the ACL repair, this time a rare injury known as a Cyclops Lesion; and finally a surgery to repair a torn medial meniscus.
Every surgery requiring difficult rehab, every rehab holding her out of the sport she loved, and every meet on the sidelines hurting her chances of earning a scholarship.
"It was [frustrating]," Ettl said. "I just always felt like there was something that was happening. Considering that the five surgeries in high school happened within a two-year period, it was just like, 'Is this ever going to fully be healed? And is it going to be healed enough so that I can do gymnastics in college?' "
Her future as a gymnast was in doubt. Her ability to compete was in question, to say nothing of her chances of making a team.
But Ettl never quit the sport, never thought that one more long rehab was a step too far for her to go to keep alive her faint hopes of stepping out in a college gym.
Even with a knee that had yet to go even a full season without breaking down after the initial injury, Ettl still pushed through the pain of every rehab.
What could give someone the motivation to work so hard with no guaranteed payoff?
"In high school it was definitely just the dream that I always wanted to compete in college," Ettl said. "I had many teammates before me go and compete at Division-I schools and I would watch them. The idea and the atmosphere of college gymnastics is what drove me."
Given her circumstances, it would not have been hard to imagine Ettl not getting a chance and never competing again. The bum knee seemed too daunting of an injury for any college to take her into its team.
Then came an email that Ettl had dreamed of.
Former Penn State women's gymnastics team assistant coach Travis Doak sent Ettl an email offering her a chance to walk on to the Nittany Lions because of the quality of her bars routine.
Today, in the White Building gymnastics room, Ettl smiles and laughs as she recounts the moment.
"No words could describe how excited I was to get that email," Ettl said. "When I came here and I stepped off the plane, I hadn't even met the coaching staff, met the girls, I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, this place is awesome. This is where I want to go.' "
A NEW CHANCE
Even with a chance to compete at the collegiate level, Ettl still wrestled with the problem of her flawed knee.
Rather than competing in every event, Ettl was now limited to competing only uneven bars, one of the events with the least potential for harmful impact on her knee. And rather than earning a scholarship, as perhaps would have befitted a state gymnastics champion, Ettl was a walk-on, a potentially marginal squad member.
But the freshman didn't feel disrespected, being marginal or unlucky.
Instead, she felt blessed.
"It was an honor and a privilege [to walk on], to be honest," Ettl said. "That may sound a little bit corny, but given my injury history throughout high school, not many schools wanted to give me that chance."
Given the chance by then-coach Steve Shephard, Ettl took advantage of it. In her first season, the freshman gymnast competed in 10 meets on bars, averaging 9.806 on the event, good for third on the team. She also scored well at the Big Ten championships, with a 9.850, and at regionals, with a 9.800.
What's more, she earned the important leadoff spot on the event because of her consistency
For Ettl, this was a great honor after her future was in doubt as recently as her junior year of high school.
"Just being able to be given the chance to walk on, and prove to the coaches, to my team, that I was here to work," Ettl said. "I wasn't here because they were paying for my school. It was an honor to put on a Penn State leotard and lead off my team. That was my dream, that was my goal."
Even after achieving her dream, Ettl wasn't done. She still had a few more goals left in her.
Despite her successful freshman year, Ettl still wasn't competing at what she thought was her best. After her most recent rehab, the gymnast still hadn't competed in the same routine she had successfully performed in high school.
Ettl also wanted to earn the closing spot in the bars lineup, where the best scorer on the event is traditionally put.
Only, her knee came back to haunt her again.
But this time, luckily for Ettl, another surgery to clean up her recently repaired medial meniscus resulted in a relatively short 4-to-6 week rehab, after her freshman year.
Even better for Ettl, she got an unexpected call during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years -- coach Steve Shephard calling to offer her a scholarship, even though she only competed in one event.
Ettl said she almost dropped the phone in shock and happiness. She also said her parents, who were paying out-of-state tuition, weren't too upset about the news either.
"I never thought it could happen. I remember calling my mom, and my mom and I were crying," Ettl said. "Obviously still being able to be a part of the team was awesome, and [the scholarship] was just a little bit of an extra bonus."
Little did she know her successes were just beginning.
During her sophomore year, Ettl became even more of a leader on the team, becoming known as a vocal presence in practice, competition and out of the gym.
"Since freshman year, she has been working extremely, extremely hard, making huge strides," teammate Daryl Konsevick said. "And she's proven herself to be consistent, a great leader, and a great leadoff on bars."
As Ettl gained the respect of her teammates for her leadership, she also earned the respect of her coaches for her gymnastic skills.
By the end of the year, Ettl had achieved yet another dream -- the closing spot in the bars lineup.
When Ettl took to the uneven bars at the Big Ten championships in Columbus, Ohio her sophomore year, as the last competitor for Penn State on its last rotation, she knew she had a chance to do something significant.
When she stuck her landing after a good routine, she knew her chance was good.
When they announced her score of 9.925, and her title of Big Ten uneven bars champion, she felt overwhelmed.
As Ettl stood on the podium, she absorbed the moment and thought about what she had overcome.
Six knee surgeries, coming in as a walk-on, earning the leadoff spot in the lineup, a scholarship, and then the anchor spot, and now, Big Ten champion.
It was another dream come true through hard work for Ettl.
"Sticking the dismount, it felt amazing, and then to learn I had won, I was like, 'Are you serious? Are you sure?' " Ettl said. "I never would have dreamed of being able to anchor a bar lineup, let alone win an event title."
However, her fortune was fleeting -- Ettl tore her lateral meniscus midway through her junior season.
Throughout the year, the gymnast was only able to practice her routine a few times a week to limit the impact to her damaged knee.
But one more injury wasn't about to stop Ettl.
In what proved to be the last competitive routine of her career, she scored another 9.925 at the Big Ten championships to repeat as Big Ten uneven bars champion, despite competing on a knee requiring a seventh surgery at the time.
Now, Ettl's time competing as a gymnast has come to an end.
She reached a decision with her doctor earlier this season that it was simply too much to ask of her knee to compete any longer. Ettl said having to make the decision saddened her, although it didn't come as a surprise.
Ettl will never take to the uneven bars at a meet again. But if you look in the White Building gymnastics room today, you'll find Ettl working out right along with her teammates.
After earning a scholarship, seizing the anchor spot on her event and winning two Big Ten titles, Ettl's career has plenty of high spots. But if you ask her what her favorite moment is, she'll tell you what you might not expect.
"My top moments would honestly just be the little things that people wouldn't think of. Traveling with the team, being able to watch my team come together and the chemistry build between the team to a family of sisters," Ettl said. "These girls I can talk to when I'm having a bad day or cheer them up when they're having a bad day. Just having that feeling of camaraderie and then just feeling the chemistry, it's just an experience you won't get to experience anywhere else. Just building these bonds and friendships that will last forever is honestly just the highlight of my college career."
As might be expected based on that answer, Ettl's time with her teammates is by no means done.
She still continues to work out with her teammates to the best of her ability, support their training, travel with them, and lead them from within -- just like before.
And as her current coach, Rachelle Thompson, will tell you, that's an important role too
"Her best event wasn't bars. It was leadership," Thompson said. "I don't even know if I can put it into words. She's just one of those kids, the way she holds herself, the way she presents herself, the way she gets grades in school, the way she comes into the gym every day, she's a leader in every aspect and every way. She doesn't even have to talk to lead the team, she just commands that respect."
Ettl's teammates are quick to agree. In fact, they'll point out they don't think Ettl's role on the team has changed at all, aside from not competing on bars.
"She's going to live through us, and she's still a part of us," fellow senior Whitney Bencsko said. "Everything that we accomplish, she accomplishes too. Because whether her role is gymnastics or a vocal role, it's still there and her leadership matters."
ONE LAST CHALLENGE
The end of Ettl's career doing gymnastics could be seen as one final challenge, too great for even Ettl to overcome.
Ettl would disagree with that -- because she's getting the best of the challenge every day when she walks into the White Building to work out and support the team.
In fact, she's grateful just to have the chance to help her teammates.
"The fact that they are still allowing me to be that much of an influence on their gymnastics is amazing," Ettl said. "Because they haven't shut me out, they haven't made me feel like I'm not a part of the team."
In a way, the end of Ettl's competitive career is fitting.
Sidelined by her right knee for the seventh time in six years, Ettl continues to overcome, contribute to her team and move forward, the way she always has.
Yet still, it would be easy to think Ettl sees all the injuries, all the rehab and all the trouble caused by her knee as a terrible curse -- if you didn't know Natalie Ettl.
"I think that's really, truly, made me who I am today," Ettl said. "Just learning to have to overcome adversity and just take the opportunities that I have in front of me and take them for what they are and not take them for granted."