As a youngster, Cale Robinson’s mother Erin encouraged him to play traditional sports. Even then, he was destined to be a gymnast.
“He was always doing cartwheels in the outfield,” she said.
When Cale was 7, Erin, a physician’s assistant, figured out a way for him attend public school in Knoxville, Tenn., about a 45-minute drive from their small hometown of Harriman, so he could train with the Premier Athletics club team. Scheduling was always a challenge, Cale often waiting at a local yogurt store for an hour or two until someone could pick him up. Somehow, they made it work.
Robinson blossomed quickly, becoming a four-time Tennessee state all-around champion. In 2010, he was the U.S. National Champion on the floor and vault, and placed fifth in the all-around.
His dream school was Stanford, and to his surprise, he was accepted.
“Once I got in, I called my dad (Jay) and he said, ‘Okay, I guess we’ll find a way for you to go there,’’’ Robinson said. “That was even before I took my recruiting trip.”
He still remembers being dropped off at his freshmen dorm by his mother and grandmother.
“I was crying and the whole nine yards,” he said.
Robinson is now a senior and two-time captain. He has overcome five surgeries – one before Stanford – and has had two ACL operations on his right knee. Despite his health setbacks, he has persevered and is competing this year on the parallel bars, high bar and floor.
“He’s not your prototype gymnast,” said head coach Thom Glielmi. “He’s tall, lanky and pretty quick. He’s pretty incredible in the air and knows how to flip and twist.”
Robinson might be the busiest guy on campus. In addition to training and meets, he is taking 16 units for his human biology major, which he will complete this spring; is a member of the Cardinal Council; and is a manager for the women’s gymnastics team.
“He’s definitely making use of every waking moment,” Glielmi said.
As a freshman in 2011, Robinson got off to a strong start, scoring high marks on the floor exercise and vault against Cal, then was lost for the season due to injury. The injury was tempered by the fact that the Cardinal went on to win the NCAA Championship, securing the school’s 100th title.
“That in itself was pretty incredible,” said Robinson, one of four holdovers from the squad. “Out of nowhere this banner popped up that it was Stanford’s 100th. I guess we didn’t realize how big of an accomplishment it was.”
Robinson came back strong the following year, posting a career-high 15.500 on the floor exercise at UI-Chicago and a personal-best 15.500 on the vault at Ohio State. In the last practice before the 2012 NCAA Championships, where he was scheduled to compete in four events, he tore his ACL again.
“In that moment, I was kind of like, ‘Why am I doing this?’’’ said Robinson. “Why have I worked so hard to come back and it’s just going to happen again.”
His doctor informed Robinson the second ACL injury was caused by a torn meniscus. It was also discovered he had a rare Cyclops lesion. After much thought, he decided he still wanted to compete, and was told a meniscus transplant was his only option.
“The doctor said ‘The reason I do this surgery is to get people back to walking,’” he recalled. “He said he hadn’t done the procedure enough on athletes to know how successful it would be. I could have just done the second ACL, but I wouldn’t be able to compete again without the transplant.”
Robinson’s name was put a donor list. Six months later, a meniscus became available and the surgery was performed.
Although Robinson sat out his junior season to rehab, teammates still elected him a captain. That inspired him to work even harder and return for his senior season.
“That was a huge honor for me,” he said. “I can’t walk away from the guys on the team.”
Added Glielmi, “Even though he couldn’t compete on the competition floor, his teammates saw what he brought. He’s a lunch pail kid and you pretty much had to kick him out of the gym.”
Erin wasn’t surprised.
“He’s mentally tough,” she said. “I just told him you have to get over being injured and pick yourself up. Being part of a team might not always be competing but being a cheerleader and lifting everybody up.”
The oldest of three children, Robinson communicates with his mother every day. She has only attended one of his college meets – at Ohio State – but hopes to watch him at Michigan and Texas this season.
“That’s been the hardest part,” said Erin of his move to California. “There’s opportunities I couldn’t give him.”
Prior to this season, Robinson had bone chips removed from his ankle and has had several pain injections in his shoulder. But he’s not about to quit.
“I think gymnastics is special because it’s not a lifetime sport,” he said. “I can’t do this forever and keep training this way. That’s the one thing I love about it: It’s just a finite time in my life and I can make the most of it.”
Glielmi is appreciative of Robinson’s dedication and said he has been an inspiration to the team.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Glielmi. “A lot of guys, if they had gone through what he went through they would retire. Unless they go into the circus, this is their career.”
Robinson is also determined to help Stanford win another NCAA title this year.
“I definitely have a lot of motivation to make that happen again,” said Robinson. “To have that ring and that experience, and having been able to watch and see what it takes to have a national championship team … I don’t want there to be an empty gap. It’s important to have people on the team that know what it takes to get there again.”
Robinson has already decided on a post-college career path: he wants to coach gymnastics. He figures to have a leg up given all the obstacles he has overcome and that his major is focused on health, nutrition and human performance.
“It’s pretty applicable to what I’ve been through,” Robinson said.