Defying gravity: Crohn’s disease can’t ground Michaela Romito’s gymnastics career

Senior Michaela Romito finishes a bar routine in the gymnastics practice room in the M.A.C. Center Friday. Romito suffers from Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease attacking the digestive tract, and chooses to do gymnastics for Kent State despite her disease. 

Libby Schrack

Michaela Romito was only a freshman in high school when her colon took gymnastics away from her.

The sport had been part of her life since she was one year old, when her mother, a former gymnast herself, took her to Gymnastics World in Broadview Heights.

In a few years, she was training there under former Olympian Dominique Moceanu and dreaming about the Olympics herself.

By the time Romito was in high school, competing in college seemed more realistic. But that year, her body had other ideas.

The gymnast began noticing rashes on her shoulder blades. Then, she started vomiting at least every other day. She lost her appetite and started losing weight — 30 pounds.

She tried to keep practicing, but fatigue got the best of her, prohibiting her from moving forward.

Finally, her mom took her to a doctor, who diagnosed shingles and prescribed antibiotics. That didn’t sound right to her mother, a nurse, but they went ahead with the medication.  

Romito didn’t get better. Three months later, she went back with the same issues. This time, the doctor thought she had food poisoning.

After her high school state meet in the beginning of March, Romito finally went to the Cleveland Clinic to get further testing done.

The doctor called her on a Saturday.

“This can’t be good,” Romito remembers thinking. “Doctors don’t call on Saturdays.”

That was the first time she heard the words “Crohn’s disease.”

“At first, I didn’t even know what it was,” Romito said. “But my mom knew and started crying.”

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that makes it difficult to digest food. The disease also causes severe abdominal pain and fatigue.  

She and her mother met with the doctor that Monday for two hours.

Romito began to realize just how serious this was. Her first thought: “How long will I be out of gymnastics?”

Her doctor knew gymnastics was her passion, her love, her happiness. So they began doing all that they could.

“We started with steroids,” Romito said. “I felt better and wanted to go back right away. He told me my bones weren’t strong enough.”

So in order for her body to be strong enough to endure workouts, her doctor decided to switch her to a medication called infliximab, better known by its brand name Remicade. Romito refers to this medication as her “super charge.”

Once a month, Romito goes to the Clinic for an IV infusion of the drug, which makes sure her stomach doesn’t get inflamed. It also gives her more energy, she said.

Romito was away from gymnastics from March of her freshman year to the start of her sophomore year of high school. She missed it so much she got counseling from a psychologist.

These are very important years in the sport when getting recruited by colleges.

The time off gymnastics, new medication cycle, missing school and not feeling 100 percent was a lot for Romito to handle.

“That was the hardest part, having to adjust to everything,” Romito said. “It all happened in the prime of my gymnastics career, and I was really scared I wasn’t going to get recruited by a lot of colleges because of it.”

But she stepped back into gymnastics her sophomore year and helped her Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School team win a state championship.

Life never got easy, Romito said, but it did get easier. By her junior year, she started to decide about where to compete in college.

Kent State had always been on her radar.

As a young girl, Romito watched Kent State gymnastics meets. Her hometown gym had a long history with the Flashes.

“I had teammates who came to Kent and competed,” she said. “My coaches at my home gym had competed at Kent.”

Kent State also made sense because of its close proximity to the Cleveland Clinic.

Romito’s first recruiting contact with Kent State coach Brice Biggin came during her junior year. Biggin had seen her compete for several years.

“Even at a young age she was focused,” Biggin said. “You could tell she approached everything with determination and focus.”

Biggin said Romito also stood out to him because of her success in high school gymnastics, where it is more team-oriented like it is in college.  

“From the beginning, she has always been about the team,” Biggin said. 

Biggin said he didn’t learn about Romito’s Crohn’s disease until she was on campus. It never has made a difference, he said.

“I saw how great of care I got,” Romito said. “It inspired me to want to do that for other people as well.”

Romito’s best friend and teammate, Rachel Stypinski, is beyond proud of her.

“She is a great person,” Stypinski said. “She is always positive. There is never a frown on her face, and she finds the light in every situation.”

The two friends first met when they were seniors in high school. They both already had committed to Kent State, and Stypinski, who is from the suburbs of Philadelphia, stayed at Romito’s home the night before a home Kent State meet.

Their connection was instant.

Stypinski said she has never seen Romito let her Crohn’s disease get in the way of her life.

“She always knows what to say,” Stypinski said. “She is so independent. She doesn’t look for support. So if I see her not as positive, I will ask her what’s up. But she is just so positive.”

Romito said she does need the support she gets from Stypinski and her other teammates.

“My teammates are nothing but the best,” Romito said. “Their support makes my bad days so much better.”

Romito said, other than her monthly visits to the Clinic, her life isn’t any different from her teammates’. She’s never missed a practice or meet because of the her disease.

Romito is a four-year starter for the Flashes and is the first performer on the floor exercise, one of her team’s strongest events. She was a scholastic All-American last season.

She said being positive has been the key to being a top gymnast instead of giving in to the disease.

“It never stopped me,” Romito said. “I think it motivated me. I definitely never let it stop me.”

Libby Schrack is a sports reporter. Contact her at [email protected].