Breathe in, breathe out.
Taylor Spears is preparing for the final routine of her gymnastics career. Time to have fun, yes, but also time to focus. Suddenly, a familiar voice crackles over the loudspeaker in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex—the only voice that can break her concentration.
“Hi, I’m Mary Spears, and I’m Taylor’s mom!” exclaims Taylor’s number one fan and the leader of her personal cheering section.
Taylor’s eyes flash upward and immediately lock with those of her head coach for the past four seasons, K.J. Kindler. Kindler shakes her head.
“Block it out,” she advises.
Taylor nods and the sounds in the arena fade away. This is it, her time in the competition arena is drawing to a close.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Just minutes later, Taylor Spears is crowned the 2014 NCAA Champion on balance beam.
Taylor Spears was a talented child, athletic from almost the very beginning. Swimming by age 2 and later dancing and doing tennis, she kept her parents Tim and Mary incredibly active as well.
“We knew she was going to be good at something, we just didn’t know what,” Mary reflected.
But there was one sport that Taylor kept coming back to: gymnastics. In her first meet at age 8, Taylor showed up and won every event in her age division. Tim and Mary looked at each other and decided Taylor had found her niche.
“She just pursued it and her father was so great and so proud,” Mary said. “He always filmed her. She was her daddy’s girl and always the highlight of his day.”
Just two years later, though, everything changed for Mary and Taylor.
A 10 year old fifth-grader, Taylor was on a field trip with her Houston-based elementary school class at NASA. When she returned from the field trip, another teacher—one of her mother’s co-workers at the school—pulled Taylor aside and told her she was taking the little girl home. Taylor’s mother had to leave the school because of a family emergency.
It wasn’t until Taylor was reunited with her mother that she learned the truth: her father had passed away.
Tim’s death was beyond unexpected for the young family. Taylor’s father suffered a burst aorta; though medical responders attempted to life-flight him to a nearby Houston hospital for rapid treatment, he passed away before he could reach a medical facility.
“It’s really hard telling your 10-year-old daughter what happened and why,” Mary said. “That was the one question she wanted to know: ‘why?’ It was tough. I told her it was for a reason—though I didn’t know what that reason was.”
Taylor leaned on her mother and her extended family for support as she tried to comprehend what had happened.
“She was pretty strong about it, and I didn’t really understand,” Taylor remembered. “I was upset, but at the same time I couldn’t really process that that was it. All of our family, her family, came down as soon as possible and that made it a lot easier.”
Not long after Tim’s death, Mary recognized how important it would be to keep Taylor around a strong and supportive family unit. With both her family and her daughter’s well-being in mind, she opted to sell their home and Tim’s truck and move to Plano to be closer to family and better educational and gymnastics opportunities.
“From then on, we were a team,” Mary said. “We stuck together, moved north and she excelled in gymnastics.”
“After (we moved to Plano), we got even closer,” Taylor said. “She was the only person that I really had to talk to because I had no friends there yet, so that really helped us to get closer. Ever since then, I can tell her everything.”
Along with the move came Taylor’s enrollment in the prestigious World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA). Her athletic career began to take off, but along with qualifying to higher levels and attending prestigious competitions came another demand: money.
An elementary school teacher, Mary knew there would be sacrifices to be made in order to support Taylor’s dreams. Her message to Taylor was simple: if you do your part, I’ll do mine. As she excelled, Mary worked harder, taking on time at summer camps, summer school and tutoring appointments to help cover costs. Mary’s family was also instrumental, stepping in to help when needed.
“It wasn’t easy,” Mary remembered. “It was a struggle. We struggled having to pay for some things alongside gymnastics and school. But we went for it, and we made ends meet.”
It wasn’t always glamorous. Taylor and her mother went paycheck-to-paycheck, living in an apartment instead of a house and often having to pass on luxuries that many of their friends could afford. Living in an affluent suburb didn’t often help matters as Taylor was surrounded by peers with expensive cars and large homes.
“I told her it was okay,” Mary said. “We’ll get through this, we’re doing it for a reason. I think she sees it now. We made it. We downsized a little, we made it through and look was she accomplished.”
“I don’t know how she did it,” Taylor said. “Those sacrifices mean so much to me. Look what happened. If I didn’t move to WOGA, I don’t think I would have ended up at OU because they made me so much better.”
Taylor competed as an international elite-level gymnast for several years, taking trips abroad to places like Russia for competitions. Her gymnastics career helped both her and her mother heal.
“She was so involved, but not over-the-top,” Taylor said. “Not one of ‘those moms.’ She did enough. She knew when to stay out of it, but she was always there.”
The focus gymnastics brought to Taylor’s life was helpful to Mary as well.
“As a single mother, it was a blessing to me,” Mary said. “It was just me and her. Keeping her focused on gymnastics kept her on the right path.”
Taylor eventually decided to return to Level 10 and pursue a collegiate career, officially opening the recruiting process when she was 16 years old. Quickly contacted by schools like Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma, Spears had her heart set on joining former WOGA teammates at either Florida or UCLA, but Mary had other thoughts.
“All the schools interested in her would offer her academics and a college education,” Mary said. “A huge advantage for me would be travelling to Oklahoma. As a single mother, I couldn’t afford to jump on a plane and go to Florida she see her compete. If she went to OU, I could be there.”
Taylor elected to visit Oklahoma not long after. A stellar visit left no doubt in her mind.
“I took my first and only visit to OU and I was offered the next weekend,” Taylor said. “I took it. I didn’t even visit anywhere else.”
Taylor came home from the gym that morning, a Saturday afternoon just after lunch, and walked in the door knowing was she wanted. She looked at her mother and simply said, “I’m a Sooner.”
“We jumped up and screamed and cried and hugged each other,” Mary said. “It was a neat moment.”
For Taylor, the climb to the top was steep and challenging. Her first year at Oklahoma was a battle, but she thrived with the support of her ultimate teammate: Mary. Her mother continued to urge her toward the dream Taylor had carried for so long. When Taylor came home for Thanksgiving, her mother nearly had to “shove her” back into the car to go home.
“I think her freshman year was a battle for her,” Mary said. “She struggled to see how she could do it all. But we prayed and we talked, and I said just go for it. Get in the lineup. You can do this! She got in three lineups her freshman year, so she fought. She fought for it, she had to fight for it, and she kept fighting for it every year, but all of the girls do.”
After freshman year, Taylor’s mentality shifted. It began to occur to her what she was capable of. If she could do it for one year, it could only get better.
And get better it did.
First an All-Big 12 selection, then an all-arounder, then the Big 12 all-around champion and Gymnast of the Year. An All-American. An AAI Award finalist. The awards kept coming because Taylor kept working, even through difficult lulls like the beginning of her senior year.
“At the start of my senior year, I knew some people talked and said I didn’t look the same,” Taylor said. “Finally, right before Big 12s, something clicked and I knew it was the end. But everyone always believed in me, and that helped.
“This year—my senior year—was all about the team. That’s all I can think about. I’ve never been on such an amazing team will all those incredible people. They all made my senior year so great. Every meet just got better.”
Mary was along every step of the way, driving to Norman for home meets and flying to every postseason competition. She was in the stands in Birmingham on April 19th when Oklahoma did what it set out to do, winning the program’s first national championship alongside another stellar performance from Taylor.
“It’s just surreal,” Mary said. “It was a moment everyone wants to experience. Did we ever think we would? We thought we would, but we didn’t know. When she finally did it—the team finally did it—it was a beautiful moment.”
It was even more than that for the team of Mary and Taylor, a mother-daughter duo who had endured, believed and fought for a dream against all odds.
“I have an amazing daughter,” Mary said. “Even though she has these championships, the best is yet to come. More and better things are ahead. I want her to know that she is this beautiful young lady that is so talented, and it’s been my pleasure to be her mother. She’s a great kid, and I want to thank her for going to OU. I had the time of my life!”
Mary Spears watches her daughter Taylor mount the balance beam.
After so much—so many moments of joy, and of heartbreak, so many gymnastics competitions and meets over the last 14 years—this is finally it.
A deep breath here: in, and out.
Taylor moves effortlessly. She is graceful, making her movements look easy only because of all the repetition, the hours of practice she has put into preparing for moments like this.
She hits the routine, right down to the landing. The score flashes: 9.925. Taylor, the last routine of the day, has beaten everyone before her.
Taylor Spears is a national champion, and when she stands on the top of the podium with her trophy, there is only one face she will look for in the crowd.