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Hearing-impaired former Olympic gymnast overcomes adversity

By Emily Kumlien, ekumlien@wisctv.com
Published On: May 28 2014 06:10:35 PM CDT

A former Olympic gymnast carried the confidence she gained after losing her hearing into competitions and continues to carry it with her as a family medicine doctor and mother of two.

MADISON, Wis. -

A former Olympic gymnast carried the confidence she gained after losing her hearing into competitions and continues to carry it with her as a family medicine doctor and mother of two.

Marie Roethlisberger is a family medicine doctor at Meriter Clinic in Madison.

She was an elite Olympic gymnast in the 1980s and an NCAA champion in the early 1990s, but that is only part of the story.

Roethlisberger's successful gymnastics career led her to be a physician, but she's had to overcome adversity along the way. It could have sidelined her, but it only made her stronger.

"Walking out onto that stadium there was just a thunder that just over took this whole huge expansive area. I still get goose bumps thinking about it," Roethlisberger said.

Thirty years later the memories of the summer Olympics opening ceremonies at the Los Angeles Coliseum are still vivid for Roethlisberger.

"We were the first ones to walk out. I don't know why. I guess because we were the shortest or something," Roethlisberger said.

She was 18 years old when she was on the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. An elbow injury before the games resulted in her being named an alternate on the team, but she still considers it an honor of a life time.

After the 1984 Olympics, she competed internationally for two years, and then she went to college.

"I traded in the red white and blue for my school colors," Roethlisberger said.

Those school colors being maroon and gold of the University of Minnesota.

"My last year I won a national championship, which was on the uneven bars," Roethlisberger said.

Her father had been the men's gymnastics coach at the university after being a gymnast in the 1968 Olympics.

"We tagged along to the gym with my dad. It was a fun kid’s thing to do," Roethlisberger said.

Her brother was also a standout gymnast on the Minnesota men's team and he competed in two Olympics.

"I always only competed for myself and here we are cheering for each other and it was a whole other ball game and it was a lot of fun," Roethlisberger said.

But when her gymnastic journey ended, a new one began and she decided to become a doctor.

"The best part by far is interacting with my patients," Roethlisberger said.

An Olympic gymnast, now a doctor and what makes this story so remarkable is the accomplished wife and mother of two is almost completely deaf.

"It didn't slow me down, I didn't see it as an obstacle," Roethlisberger said.

She had meningitis when she was 2 1/2 years old and the combination of the illness and the antibiotics left her with no hearing in her left ear and almost none in the other. A hearing aid helps her cope.

"I never looked at it as a reason to not do anything in particular. I used to get the questions 'Does it ever affect my balance and my gymnastics?' But no it did not affect my balance, I don't think it would have gotten that far if it did,” said Roethlisberger, who became proficient at lip reading and she embraced her hearing loss as a part of who she was. "It was good for me. It gave me a lot of self-confidence, self-esteem and I felt good about myself."

She's carried that confidence in every aspect of her life.

"The goal setting, the discipline, the persistence to keep going and motivation, it does carry over into other things you do," Roethlisberger said.

Her life has changed over the last 30 years, but the memories can bring back many smiles and she tries to explain the "Planche," a certain gymnastic move on the balance beam.

"I did it on the bean and very few individuals could do it, and it requires a lot of strength, and it was on a magazine cover in 1985. Just don't ask me to do this again,” she said.

Roethlisberger's two children are 10 and 8. She said they keep her very busy. She also said the 1984 Olympic team is planning a 30-year reunion at the U.S. Gymnastics Nationals in Pittsburgh this August.

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