A Hollywood Star Two Years in the Making

By Kristan McCullum

Feb. 9, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you didn't follow the University of Kentucky's gymnastics program, you would never guess that Natalie Rubinstein, the bubbly blonde with the big smile, had endured two devastating injuries that had temporarily put her dream on hold. After nearly two seasons of cheering for her teammates from the sidelines, the 5'1" senior from Hollywood, Fla., has battled back to be a major contributor for the 2009 season.

It all started her freshman year at the 2006 Southeastern Conference Championships, in which Rubinstein dislocated her left elbow during the three-minute touch warm-up prior to the uneven parallel bars. The injury ended her season. She was back in action her sophomore year, when only three meets into the season, she tore her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while competing on the vault. Rubinstein was, once again, stripped of a full season of competition. One surgery and sixth months of rehabilitation later, she jumped back into training in October 2007. However, while training on the bars, Rubinstein tore her ACL once again on her landing. Only this time, the series of rehab required 12 months.

During her recovery, Rubinstein proved that attitude makes all the difference.

"I think the first time I was just focused on my leg and mentally I wasn't prepared," said Rubinstein. "I took a negative route. I just wanted to get out there for the wrong reasons. You could definitely see that in my physical training. Nothing was clicking. I remember saying, `God, if this is where you want me, that's fine.' Then the next day I tore it again and I was like, `Ok, thanks.' But then I decided to have a better attitude because I realized that I wasn't ready. I truly knew that it wasn't my time. My attitude and being positive is really what kept me going. I knew that God had a better place and a better time for me."

Rubinstein drew her strength from her optimistic outlook and the motivation to get back to her favorite event: the uneven bars.

While she realized she needed to change her attitude, the transformation didn't occur overnight.

"It was a progression, because the whole season of being a cheerleader I knew that the girls truly still loved me," recalled Rubinstein. "The season before that I was sad and bitter, so I wasn't that much of a cheerleader. So the girls weren't that appreciative. Now the team has become stronger, and our goals are focused. We appreciate how good we are and how much the team needs each other. It was definitely a progression because I needed to trust that they really wanted me."

Rubinstein became active in Athletes in Action, a training camp ministry. Serving as an intern, she helped motivate younger girls to be positive.

"I knew I had to walk the walk, so that put a lot of leadership on my shoulders," she said. "I was ready to give it my all for them and myself." 

Rubinstein also credits her change in mindset to her team and coaches being supportive while recovering from her second knee injury. The team gave the gymnast a calendar counting down the remaining months of rehab. The second time around, she felt more comfortable with the physical therapy and training she received.

"Knowing that we were doing everything possible helped a lot mentally," said Rubinstein. "I felt that I could trust the staff with my healing process. This time we were able to play it safe, and I trusted that. The first time I think I just wanted to do it my way. I was like, `I want to do it now and compete in all four events.' The second time around I just told myself to be patient and let the time come. I said, `I'm going to work my butt off, and it's going to come.' I just had to believe it."

Rubinstein during 2009 Photo Day in front of Memorial Hall.

Rubinstein's injuries were nothing like she had ever experienced. In high school she had always been able to return to competition within a couple weeks or months.

"I never doubted anything within my body," she recalled. "But once you get injured and are in college, and you're not 13 or 16 years-old anymore, you start to feel like you want your future to be OK. You don't want this to happen again. It was definitely a heartbreaker when it did happen again. But you have to keep pushing because you want it in your heart."

The upbeat gymnast finally had her chance to perform at the 2009 Excite Night, the first meet of the year, in which the gymnastics team is introduced to a packed Memorial Coliseum. Prizes are distributed and autographs signed for the many fans that come to watch the star-studded event. It had been two years since Rubinstein had seen competition.

"She was very nervous," Rubinstein's mother, Karen Rubinstein, recalled. 

"She was shaking like a leaf," her father, Richard Rubinstein, added with a laugh.

"I didn't sleep a wink the night before," reflected Rubinstein. "I was playing my routine in my head. I was visualizing everything being perfect, and then sometimes I would imagine myself falling. I didn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I had never been that nervous before. I knew this was the first time I would have competed in two years. A friend said to me, `If you are nervous as a senior, imagine how nervous your freshmen are going to be.' And right then I turned it off."

The leader in Rubinstein knew she had to set an example for her younger teammates. She regained her confidence after her usual routine of taking her traditional bubble bath and spending time with her parents and roommates. She realized that everyone believed in her. Her nerves disappeared as soon as she touched the bar.

Rubinstein hasn't been nervous since that night. She simply does what she knows she can do and says that she trusts her body.

"Before I get up there, I'm smiling and excited," she said. "I'm ready to rock."

She knows that attitude really does make the difference. Some girls are nervous and allow that emotion to show on their faces. This isn't the case for Rubinstein. She is sure to flash a big smile for the judges before she performs.

"I want my teammates to trust me and have confidence in me," she explained.

Rubinstein has proven she is a leader on and off the floor. From waving pom-poms from the sidelines to swinging on her beloved uneven bars, she is the epitome of perseverance. She managed to overcome the obstacles that could have ended her career, and instead, chose to fight and follow her heart so she could continue doing what she loves.

They say that good things come to those who wait. Rubinstein serves as the perfect example, waiting two years for the chance to compete again. It appears that in 2009, her time has finally come.