After Nyla Morabito underwent open-heart surgery as a seven-month-old at the Hospital for Sick Children, her parents, Chauncey and Asia, were warned to temper their expectations.
“They told us she wouldn’t really have much of a quality of life,” her mother recalled.
Contact sports, such as the hockey her brother Brodie was playing, or soccer were a definite no-no, even for someone who, despite a condition that required medication on an ongoing basis, was bursting with energy.
Nyla was five when she was introduced to gymnastics and began building up her muscles, including her heart.
As the family looks back 17 years later and prepares to send Nyla to Utah State University on a full athletic scholarship, the benefits of that decision have been nothing but impressive.
“Nyla was actually rebuilding her heart by doing gymnastics,” her mother said.
Morabito, who intends to study kinesiology at Utah State after graduating from Notre Dame College School in her native Welland, is thankful that all gymnastics have given her.
“It’s definitely a blessing to be able to be healthy and not have to have any more surgeries,” she said before taking part in a scholarship-signing ceremony.
Growing up, Morabito wasn’t worried about the impact sports could have on health.
“But I know my parents were a little bit stressed now and then with that,” she said. “But it honestly helped me in the end.
“After all of it, it kind of made me healthier and stronger.”
Nine universities were interested in adding the Canadian gymnastics champion to their teams. She chose Utah State because of the school’s reputation in women’s gymnastics and the close-knit size of the team, 15 compared to 25 to 30 at other Division 1 programs.
“It’s just always been a school that I was interested in. Watching the girls there and life there has always been really intriguing to me,” she said. “It’s a place I wanted to go to.”
She found Logan, Utah, “amazing” when she visited the main campus with her parents.
“The views there, the mountains, and just the girls, the whole team.”
Asia Morabito was likewise impressed with where her daughter will be living away from home for the first time.
“It was a safe community.”
During the campus visit, they went to a football game against the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
“It seemed like the entire town went.”
Of the scholarships on the table, Morabito chose the one most distant from her family’s home in Welland.
“It’s definitely the farthest one that I chose, it’s about a four-and-a-half-hour plane ride,” she said.
Morabito doesn’t think homesickness will get the better of her once she begins juggling academics and athletics as a full-time student at Utah State
“Probably, a little bit but all the girls there, the freshmen, will be going through the same thing so we can all help each other out.”
The size of the team, about 15 girls, is also a plus in the Aggies’ favour.
“It’s definitely not as big compared to other schools, which is what I really like.”
At Utah State Morabito, a member of Manjak’s Gymnastics Club in Mississauaga, will be competing as part of a team for the first time.
“It will definitely be different from what I am doing now because right now I’m obviously doing it by myself as an individual athlete,” she said. “I think it will be a really good change to be a part of a team.”
She isn’t worried about giving up control and being one of several instead of one of one.
“I like supporting other girls as well, even at competitions. I just love cheering on other people.”
Morabito, who stopped taking medications for her heart about three years ago, trains with her club in Mississauga about five times a week, sometimes practicing for up to five and a half hours a day.
How does she do that and still stay on the honor roll in high school?
“Honestly, just being able to multitask,” she answered. “Seeing where gym got me keeps me motivated to keep going to training and do well in school.”
“It gets a little time-consuming sometimes. I also figure a way to work through it.”
The Morabitos made sure their daughter’s life wouldn’t be entirely consumed by sports. They made a point of arranging play dates.
“She’s a person outside of the gym,” her mother said. “We always made sure she did things outside of the gym.”
Morabito, a specialist in vault and bars, won a Canadian championship in 2022 and recently placed second at another national championship. She has also taken part in an international competition in France.
Morabito one day would like to represent Canada at the Olympics.
“That’s definitely a goal, but I don’t want to look too far ahead and get ahead of myself,” she said. “I’m just kind of taking it one step at a time.”
The window for women in gymnastics at the world-class level has been getting wider.
“They used to kind of stop around the age of 20, but now there are a lot of girls who are still out there at 25 to 30 years old,” Morabito said. “That’s kind of motivating as well, seeing those girls who love the sport so much stay in it and are very successful.”
Outside of gymnastics, Morabito hopes a kinesiology degree will prepare her for a career in physiotherapy or sports psychology.”