MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – “The Climb” was a hit song by Miley Cyrus when Clearfield native Ellen Collins was in elementary school. It’s a song that many millennials and Gen Z-ers know the words to whether or not they like it. It’s a work that features lyrics that seem to go along with the fight Collins has given to become a Division I gymnast.
If people dive into the numbers, there are less than 1,000 Division I female gymnasts each season in the NCAA. More often than not, these young ladies live in suburban or urban areas where the access to training centers and gymnastics coaches mostly live. Obviously, this was not the case for Collins. But she never wavered in her commitment to her sport. For more than a decade, Collins would travel two hours round trip to Centre Elite Gymnastics in State College to get trained and coached hard by some of the best coaches, not just in the region, but in the country.
Centre Elite has helped to produce many athletes and helped gymnasts progress from their introduction to the sport all the way to the pinnacle of amateur gymnastics as Level 10 gymnasts. The five to six days-a-week making the trip to Centre County made a world of difference slowly but surely as Collins eventually had the chance to become a Division I gymnast beginning in the 2020-21 school year. The opportunity was not just at any school or for any program. It was with West Virginia University; an institution each of her parents (Elizabeth and Scott) represented as college athletes. Elizabeth, like Ellen, was a Mountaineers gymnast while Scott was a wrestler and became the first wrestler in school history to win an NCAA national championship.
The pride in being a Mountaineer runs deep as Collins grew up going to the school and attending various West Virginia sporting events. But going to school in Morgantown was her choice. She also had an offer to become a Rutgers University Scarlet Knight on the table during her recruiting process. However, the close distance to home and the feeling she had when she met all the members of the Mountaineers women’s gymnastics program made it an easy choice in the end.
“All the aspects outside of gymnastics helped me make this decision,” Collins noted. “My parents never pushed me to come here and just wanted me to be happy, which I appreciated. It was always in the back of my mind through the process, though. It felt right because the team atmosphere and culture are more like a family than a team. We are always there for each other and my teammates have become like my sisters. Coach Jason (Butts) is also so supportive of each of us, not just for how we perform or progress in the gym, but also how we are doing outside of our sport. The amount of growth in my life over the last three years from coming to West Virginia is indescribable.”
Not only has Collins become an even better gymnast, but she’s also become an Academic All-Big 12 Rookie team selection, a Winter Academic All-Big 12 First-Team selection, a Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association (WCGA) All-American, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) President, and most recently, a full scholarship athlete for the Mountaineers just this month. The news came as a complete shock to Collins, who learned of the news at a team function and was embraced by her teammates after they all learned the great news.
The program awarded the scholarship after many years of hard work and a breakout junior season that saw her become the Big 12 Event Specialist of the Week for the week of February 19, 2023. Collins finished her junior campaign with three podium finishes and achieved her first 9.9 on floor in her college career against Bowling Green on February 19. She also earned the opportunity to perform on floor at the 2023 Big 12 Championships and the NCAA Pittsburgh Regional Championships to end the season. “I had a lot of family and friends there supporting me (in Pittsburgh). I wasn’t thinking about that at the moment because everything goes so fast at a meet. But it was special to have a small section of a crowd come see me and have a full circle moment to return to Pennsylvania where my days as a gymnast started.”
Collins’ career prior to high school was an impressive one as she traveled the country competing at the national level. Some of her most notable accolades include winning the vault title outright at the 2020 Arizona Sunrays Classic Rock Invitational, earning first-place on floor at the 2019 Pikes Peak Cup, and garnering three top-10 finishes at the 2019 Pennsylvania State Championships to name a few. Arguably more impressively, she graduated from Clearfield Area High School in 2020 as the salutatorian; a testament to her dedication to school despite the heavy travel and practice schedule she endured through her high school years. She regularly fit in homework and studies on her rides to and from State College in order to optimize her time and be satisfied with how much time she allotted her school work.
The grind as an academic has certainly not stopped there, as she is currently a biology major on the pre-medicine track. She hopes to one day become an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine professional to help athletes get back to doing what they love. She even squeezed in time to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) recently to start the early part of the process of applying to medical schools. To her, achieving this dream is bigger than anything she will do on a bar, beam, or mat. “Being in sports and seeing the way the body moves started peaking my interest,” Collins explained.” My time in gymnastics will end after these four years. I’m eager to see how this medical school process goes and where it might take me in my life.”
It’s truly been a climb for Ellen Collins to get to this point in her life. It’s taken sacrifice and support from her parents; many club coaches at Centre Elite, including Centre Elite Gymnastics owner Tracy Salvino Longenecker, the West Virginia University athletics and gymnastics coaches and support staff, and her high school anatomy teacher Mrs. Zelensky. It’s rarely one person and one person alone that can do something great, and Collins is thankful for all of those who have helped pave her path in a positive way.
The climb has slowed and leveled out as the twilight of her gymnastics career is approaching. The 2023-2024 season she hopes will be an improvement from an already amazing junior campaign. Now having the perspective of what it’s taken to become a Division I gymnast and a Division I scholarship athlete, Collins shares, “To get here, it takes both hard word and talent. It’s how my mentality has always been. I was not always the strongest gymnast or athlete. I was a walk-on and knew I would really need to push myself to get into the lineup. The process of taking care of all the small things that go on in the background of being an athlete also added up. I’m so glad that all of it has come together. I just want people to know that it’s important to keep working hard and showcase their skills the best they can to be seen for their abilities.”