Just recently, Memphis-area entrepreneur Realis Sanders was away from his Allstate Insurance agency in Southeast Memphis. He figured he might as well spend what was left of his weekend watching ESPN.
His daughter, Jordyn Sanders, had other ideas.
“I end up watching (University of) Alabama and Georgia gymnastics,” Realis Sanders said with a grin.
He didn’t seem to mind passing up watching SportsCenter highlights. Among the biggest reasons is that Sanders household has become accustomed to watching their oldest daughter transcend into one of Memphis’ brightest amateur gymnastics athletes.
At just nine years of age, Jordyn Sanders’ dazzling stunts in gymnasiums throughout the Mid-South have gone virtually unnoticed on the Junior Olympic circuit and she hasn’t shown any signs that she will slow down anytime soon.
From the time her parents were initially bewildered when they discovered their daughter cartwheeling and treating her bed frames as a balance beam five years ago, Jordyn is not only reaping the benefits of the lengthy hours she devotes to gymnastics on a weekly basis, but she is making a strong case that vying for a spot on a future U. S. Olympic team is an attainable feat.
To her credit, Jordyn has had such an astounding impact as an amateur gymnast that her skills have afforded her to compete in numerous cities, most notably Chicago, Chattanooga, Knoxville, St. Louis, Baton Rouge, Clemson, S. C., Birmingham, and Nashville, among others.
“I enjoy watching her because I find myself holding my breath when she’s out there,” said Kimberly Sanders, Jordyn’s mother. “I’ve found myself making body jerks because I see how much effort she puts into it.”
Having first engaged in gymnastics when she was four years old, Jordyn practices between 18-to-20 hours per week. She began competing two years later when she became a Junior Olympian through an organization sanctioned by USA Gymnastics, whose primary responsibilities include selecting and training the U.S. Gymnastics Teams for Olympic Games and World Championships.
“She definitely has a passion for (gymnastics),” Kimberly Sanders, a mother of two daughters, said in assessing the strides her daughter has made in her brief time on the circuit. “You would think (after practicing) she’s come in here and crash. But I don’t think she realizes she had been in the gym for four hours.”
To get a clear understanding why the Sanders deem it necessary to embrace their daughter’s heroics as a gymnast, look no further than the tumultuous events that mired their family hours after Jordyn’s birth.
In December 2004, Jordyn was born 26 weeks prematurely and weighed only one pound and 14 ounces. As her father recalls, he could basically hold his daughter in “one hand,” a heart-retching encounter that brought his wife to tears Sunday afternoon as she reminisced about whether her baby daughter would make it out of the neonatal intensive care unit alive days after she was born.
“A lot of things went through my mind,” Kimberly Sanders said as she wiped away tears. “I just know it was time to have a lot of faith in God. She had a lot of obstacles. What was going through my mind was that uncertainty.”
At times, Realis Sanders sensed he had to be just as strong for his wife, considering doctors had informed them of what appeared to be an assortment of unfavorable prognosis.
“They said she would have a number of physical challenges, visual challenges, psychological challenges and all that,” he said. “You immediately have to rely on your faith and you hope that’s not going to be her feat. Just because they said all of that doesn’t mean that’s going to be her path. It’s another world out there when something like that happens. They didn’t know if she was going to be able to walk or speak. They gave us quite a few worst case scenarios and she defied all the odds.”
Strapped to feeding tubes and oxygen devices, Jordyn remained in NICU for 69 days. Still, the Sanders never gave up a hope on their firstborn whom they labeled as a “miracle child.”
That’s because today, a 63-pound, energetic Jordyn — to the delight of her loved ones — have weathered arguably the grandest obstacle of her young life, an inspiring, memorable occurrence that left her mother crying tears of joy as she and her husband reclined in their living room in downtown during an exclusive interview with MemphiSport.
“It’s been a positive progression from (the day she was born),” said Kimberly Sanders, the newly-installed principal at Raleigh Bartlett Meadows. “No setbacks. I mean, she defied the odds.”
For the Sanders, high school sweethearts whose paths first crossed in the mid-1990s while students at Whitehaven High, having witnessed their daughter overcome what undoubtedly was a potentially fatal situation is what makes investing so much time to her craft as a flourishing gymnast much more relishing. After all, the odds were stacked solely against Jordyn when she was too young to remember.
Looking ahead, Jordyn’s itinerary continues to fill up, given she competed in a state meet in Memphis recently and then attended a camp last month at the University of Alabama, where she and other athletes had the chance of staying in dormitories. For a healthy, vibrant gymnast who continues to draw rave reviews in arenas throughout the region, Jordyn appears destined to evolve into a household name just like Gabby Douglas. Douglas caught the sports world by storm when she became the first African-American woman to capture gold medals in both the all-around and team competitions in the 2012 Summer Games.
“She’s the best gymnast I’ve seen,” Jordyn said of Douglas as she took to the balance beam in the center of the living room. “She’s very good. She’s very popular.”
Given the disheartening obstacles she had to conquer as an infant child, chances are Jordyn could be next.
Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson also covers the NBA’s Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.