by Katie Heenan Dodson
US National Champion Gymnast, Mom and Seton Graduate
Seton Graduation Address, 2015
When I was first asked to speak to you today, I immediately thought “why me?” I am not a successful business woman; I have not helped make the world a better place; I have not pioneered anything. Why me? The short answer: because of my commitment to education while achieving great success in gymnastics. It is not just because I could train 36 hours a week, or travel all over the country and the world, or endure a pulled muscle or a broken heel.
It is because I could do all of that and more and still pass 9th grade English! (All of you know how hard that 9th grade English was!) Only Seton, staying true to its mission and purpose, would ask someone like me to be here today to share my experience.
As I look out at each of you here today–future gold medal winners, Nobel Peace prize winners, honest politicians (Heaven knows we need you more than ever), and loving mothers and fathers–I am extremely humbled to be among you, to be one of you and to have a few minutes of your time.
I do not like talking about myself or my accomplishments in gymnastics, but I have come to realize that by sharing my experiences and offering my hard-earned knowledge on time management and other attributes for success, I can help others.
Who I Am
I am the only daughter of four children. My oldest brother is a priest with the Fraternity of St. Peter, my younger brother is headed to Law School and my youngest brother is still discerning. My Dad is a cradle Catholic and my Mom converted before they got married. I began gymnastics at 4, started competing at 5, and didn’t stop until I graduated college.
I made it to the Junior Olympic level at the age of 11. I was a member of the US National Team for 7 years, a member of the 2001 World Championship team where I won 2 bronze medals, and I competed at the 2004 Olympic Trials. I received a full scholarship from the University of Georgia and helped win 4 National Championships in a row, scoring more total points than any Georgia gymnast ever, and in addition to many other accolades, I received the Honda Award, the highest recognition for gymnastics in college-level sports.
When my parents realized the extent of my gymnastics talent and the subsequent demands of training and competition, they began to look into alternatives for my education. Both of my parents wanted to find a solid Catholic curriculum for me and after much searching and praying, they found Seton Home Study School. Today, more than ever, I am so very grateful they made that choice, so thankful that like you, I am a Seton graduate.
I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Middle School Education. During college, I met, fell in love with, and married my husband, Stephen. We have three children, Charlie (5 ½), Elaine (2), and Mary Claire (4 months). We reside in Alpharetta, Georgia, where I am a wife and mother, but I also coach gymnastics and do live commentary for college gymnastics meets part time.
How I Survived and You can Thrive
My competitive gymnastics days are far behind me, but some days I still feel as though I’m training for the Olympics just getting through my daily tasks as a mom. Sometimes I look back and wonder, “How did I do it?” How did I train twice a day, six days a week, thirty-six hours a week?
How did I travel around the country and the globe so many times a year? How did I overcome injury, disappointment, frustrations, and self-doubt? How did I become a champion? While all that was going on, how did I get any schoolwork done? How did I pass my tests? How did I finish with a high GPA?
I did it by following a few simple things: time management, dedication, perseverance, proving the naysayers wrong (in a respectful way), and most importantly, doing it all while staying true to my Catholic faith.
1) Use time wisely.
Many times I needed to sleep more than to do school work because of how physically exhausted I was from training, but to me, that was not an option. When I wasn’t practicing, I worked on assignments, read, completed projects. I planned out my days and weeks, especially when I had trips or big competitions coming up, so that I could fit everything in to be successful with both my gymnastics and my education.
If I knew there was a big paper coming up and also that I had to be ready for training camp, I would plan out when I could fit in research, writing, sleeping, eating, taking care of my body and any injuries, doctor appointments, therapy sessions, all of which had to happen in between practices—two practices each day. Time management was key. Deciding how to prioritize was not always easy and I did not always make the right choices.
But if I made a mistake and chose to prioritize the wrong thing, you better believe I paid the consequences later, adjusted, and never made that choice again.
2) Don’t give up.
My focus was on my goals, short and long term. I knew gymnastics was important to me at the moment but I also had to graduate so I could go on to compete in college. I had to battle through, find the energy deep down, and remember why I was putting myself through all those challenges and difficult days. There was only one way to achieve my goals: never stop. So I say to you, never stop until the task or tasks are completed.
Never give up and never shut down until you have given your all, done your best, and put it all out there.
3) Use your resources, ask for help, and always continue to learn.
Listen and learn from those around you. If I had stopped training or stopped learning new skills, if I had thought I was at the top of my game, I never would have been invited to compete at the University of Georgia. I never would have won a single national championship.
I would have missed out on so much. Remember, you are never too old, too experienced, or too smart to keep learning. Especially now, as you move on to college or wherever life takes you, soak up as much knowledge as you can and use it to better yourself on your journey through this life.
4) Be grateful for your education.
I could never have imagined how Seton Home Study School would enrich my life then and now. To this day, people will feel sorry for me and express how much I must have “given up” when I decided to homeschool. Little did I know that I wasn’t really sacrificing anything.
In truth, because of Seton, I learned so many beneficial things that have had a far greater impact on my life than any public school experience I could have had. I was able to be true to myself and develop a closer relationship with the Church and our Lord. No matter whether I was learning about biology or history, the root of everything was Christ. Everything came back to the One and True reason we are here on Earth and capable of learning in the first place.
The knowledge I gained from Seton not only helped propel my gymnastics to a higher level, but gave me the tools I needed and still need every day to make it through this life with my faith. And as you know, I went to a secular university where values and virtue are not a top priority.
Yet, what I acquired from Seton enabled me to leave with my dignity intact and my faith stronger than ever, and I am here today, completely in love with Christ and His Church.
5) Above everything, live by the Church and all of her teachings.
All of you are way more equipped to do that than most. Despite all the distractions and my busy schedule, going to Mass was always a priority of mine. I took cab rides to Mass very early in the morning before a competition or convinced a coach to drive me to Mass before training.
I once insisted that the team’s big charter bus drop me off and pick me up in front of a church for Mass. I knew that I needed Jesus in my life and with me through every struggle and every achievement. I needed to receive Him in the Eucharist and I refused to miss my obligation to visit His house.
Make sure that you continue to receive our Lord through the Eucharist and all of the sacraments. He will bless your life tenfold. I truly believe that my successes in gymnastics and in my life so far are due to the fact that I continued to practice and grow in my Catholic faith. I know practicing our faith seems so simple and going to Mass on Sundays seems easy, but trust me, I was up against incredible odds and powerful influences that did not support my fundamental religious beliefs, and you will encounter these too.
An important aside is that you never know who you will impact by simply living your faith. I had friends that didn’t go to church who were moved by my dedication and asked if they could come with me. One of the reasons I fell in love with my husband was because after we first started dating, he asked me why I never invited him to church.
I knew I was going to marry a Catholic but I hadn’t wanted to pressure him, especially before I knew that we were serious. He ended up converting before we got married. So again, you never know who you will impact by simply practicing your faith.
6) Trust in the Lord and what He has planned for you.
His plan is best. Through my gymnastics career, I learned that when one door closes, God opens a window and shines light on the path that you should really be taking. Injuries happened at the most disheartening times. There were practices I thought I would never get through. There were disastrous competitions.
But from each of those experiences I grew stronger, found different ways to work, and ended up being more successful than I ever imagined possible. Follow your dreams but remember to listen for directions!
7) Never compromise your work or yourself.
And, if you ever feel lost or abandoned go back to the core, the center of your life. Remember where your talents come from and all that God promises you. That is one of the most important lessons I learned through Seton.
There is a core, a common theme threaded through everything we do and why we are in this world. Always come back to that starting point if you lose your way and you will quickly reemerge, inspired and rededicated to push forward.
8) Don’t forget to smile!
One of my favorite gymnasts was Amanda Borden. I don’t know if any of you remember her from back in the early ‘90’s, but she was always smiling. She made gymnastics look fun and she looked like she loved what she was doing.
A smile can be one of your most powerful weapons as you meet all the new people along your journey. Try always to put forward a positive outlook and enjoy the blessings and opportunities God has entrusted to you. You never know when or how the person you portray might just change someone’s day.
I close with powerful advice from scripture: Proverbs 3, verses 5 and 6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”