From Big 10 to ACC: Arayah Simons leaves Pitt on her terms after battling back from two season-ending injuries

By Kasey Nelson | May 15, 2024
Pitt's Arayah Simons during the 2024 season.

Injuries are inevitable in sports, so mindset is paramount. For Arayah Simons, she needed double the mindset after facing an Achilles rupture in her sophomore year at Illinois and then another during her senior season. Despite all the obstacles she faced, Simons posted career highs of 9.95 on vault, 9.9 on bars, 9.85 on beam and 9.95 on floor through her career with the Illini and a victory lap at Pittsburgh. She capped her career with an eighth place finish on bars at the ACC Championships in March, earning a 9.875.

Read on to hear her favorite moments at Illinois, what she did to get back in the lineups, what it means to finish her career as a Pitt Panther, and her advice for any gymnast facing an injury. 

Q: You had a lot of success at Illinois. Looking back at those moments, what stands out the most to you?

Arayah Simons: I think the moments that stand out the most for me are just working through that adversity of coming back from injury time after time and being able to compete. Also, my teammates at Illinois really did band together as a team, and having that family atmosphere grew me as a leader and as a person to carry on my journey at Pitt. 

Q: You talked a little bit about your injuries. What was your mindset with the two Achilles ruptures in your sophomore and senior years?

AS: The first injury is always the hardest because you kind of go through an identity crisis of ‘who am I if I can’t do what I’m good at?’ But working through that first one and all the ups and downs that come with coming back from injury made my second one a lot easier. And I feel like with this one I have a lot more gratitude that I didn’t have with the first one. It’s the little things, like even if you mess up at a meet, there’s gratitude for just being able to get back out there again.

Q: You talked about your teammates being really great at Illinois. How did they help you rally so you could make those amazing comebacks?

AS: Having someone there that also believes in you just as much as you believe in yourself is a great thing to have. When I was low, they were always right there to have my back, and I have that here as well at Pitt. Those two experiences have really just helped me grow as a person.

Q: What steps specifically did you take to make sure you could get back into action competing?

AS: I was always working out and doing mental routines when I couldn’t move my body. Surgery is a really, really long process that nobody really expects to go through. But I feel like if my body can’t do it, my mind can, so doing mental routines and visualizing everything made it an easy transition to get back into gymnastics.

Q: What sparked your decision to take the fifth year and transfer to Pitt?

AS: So it was a very late decision because I was trying to decide if it’s time to just hang up the hat. But really what sparked the decision is all the years in club that I put in where you work your butt off every single day. And I told myself no matter where this year ends up, I’m leaving the sport walking. 

Q: Was there a point when you stepped onto the Pitt campus where you knew you made the right decision?

AS: Yes. I absolutely love my coaching staff. They’re probably one of the best coaching staffs I’ve ever had in my life. When coming back from an injury, you kind of second guess it a little bit, and I feel like they’re always steady with me and super calm. And even though you can be off one day, they still believe in your talent. So I think that point when I got on campus and realized what kind of coaching staff I had really was a turning point for me and my recovery.

Q: As gymnasts, we’ve all experienced injuries, and the timing’s never really what we want. What’s the best advice you could give to other gymnasts who have just experienced a big injury to help them?

AS: Your world is not ending just because you injure yourself. I remember talking to my family, and they said you have to deal with the cards you were dealt. But I just remember saying to myself: ‘No, I’m gonna ask the dealer for different cards.’ Be motivated to end it the way you want to end it.