Shanice Howard could count the number of African-Americans in her Orange County community growing up on one hand. At 5’6″, the young gymnast stood out at her local club in more ways than one. Following a back injury in her junior year of high school, Howard had all but given up on college gymnastics until she learned that San Jose State’s team had a scholarship available. In the spring of her senior year, Howard impressed SJSU’s then-coach Wayne Wright and earned a spot on the team. Once in San Jose, she says that for the first time she realized that she wasn’t alone—in sport or at school.
“Orange County was a bubble,” says Howard, ’11 Kinesiology. “I was always either doing gymnastics or going to school. When I came to San Jose for my recruiting trip, I fell in love with the city and how diverse it is here.”
Howard first started tumbling at age five, when her mother began teaching preschool gymnastics. Though she learned to vault, perform the balance beam and the high bars, her favorite event by far was the floor routine. Always chasing that perfect 10 score, Howard says she learned to apply years of practice, competition and focus to life beyond the gym. Inspired by Olympians such as Dominique Dawes, the first African-American gymnast she saw compete, Howard was motivated to return, day after day, year after year, to the mat, the bars and the vault. As much as she idolized the three-time Olympic medalist, her lifelong role model has always been her mom.
“My mom came from a pretty impoverished life in Ohio and moved herself out to California so she could make sure that when she started a family, we would have a better upbringing and more opportunities than she did,” she says. “I am very, very lucky to have her.”
Her mother’s commitment to her family instilled an insatiable work ethic that Howard applied in gymnastics and at school. At San Jose State, she trained four hours a day, five to six days a week. Though the season lasted from January through April, she trained just as hard—if not harder—in the off-season. Because club gymnastics trains athletes to compete individually, the shift to college gymnastics reinforced the importance of working as a team. Howard loved hearing her entire team behind her. The first time she competed on the four-inch balance beam for San Jose State, she had to push past her fear and jitters and follow six women who fell, one after the other. She performed well and did not fall, winning the event.
“You get those butterflies in your stomach before you go because everybody is staring at you, waiting for you to salute the judges,” she says. “But you hear your teammates behind you, screaming encouragement and telling you that you are going to do an amazing job. Then it’s just exciting. You feel like Superwoman. It’s a really fun feeling.”
When she wasn’t in the gym, the President’s Scholar was studying to maintain an impressive 3.99 GPA. Her efforts were rewarded in 2011, when she was named the Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year by Diverse Issues in Higher Education, an award bestowed upon undergraduate student-athletes of color who excel in the classroom as well as in sports. The national winner for female student-athletes that year, Howard shared the magazine cover with Russell Wilson, who went on to become the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks.
“When I learned the history of the award, I was really proud that I was recognized,” she says. “It is really important that we are getting recognition for minorities in sports who are doing well in school, so kids have role models to follow. People who look like them, who can do those things that they are driven to try to achieve.”
Because gymnastics is such a high-impact sport, competitive athletes are often prone to injury. In her junior year, Howard suffered stress fractures in her shins that kept her from performing the floor routine. Outside of the Olympics, there are few opportunities for professional gymnasts to compete after college—which is why she wanted to take full advantage of her time on the team. Still, it bothered her that her injuries kept her from competing further in her favorite event. Motivated to help fellow gymnasts avoid injury, after graduating from SJSU she pursued a doctorate of physical therapy, became a licensed physical therapist and now helps athletes treat and hopefully prevent injuries.
“Gymnastics is a part of everything I do, even today,” Howard says. “It’s all about training and training and training to get to that end goal—that perfect routine. I approach life that way. If I want to achieve a goal, I need to put in that work, manage my time, and make sure that I’m getting there. You learn to prioritize things because time is precious.”
Years later, she says that few experiences compare to belonging to the student-athlete community at San Jose State.
“College sports are amazing. If you can get there, do it, because it is the best of both worlds,” she says. “You get your education for whatever you want to pursue after your sport, plus you’re enjoying the sport that you love with people who also love it. It was really cool to see how all the female athletes at San Jose State came together to support each other. We spent so much time together—the basketball girls, the softball girls, water polo. You have this camaraderie because you are all here to play your college sport. Being at San Jose State was definitely the highlight of my whole gymnastics career.”