Stephen Lewis used to step foot inside United Gymnastics in Baltimore, Maryland growing up.
The door would clang shut behind him and he would step foot onto the big blue squishy mats that were soft and easy on his joints. He would look around at the balance beam, the vault, the bars, and the empty floor mat.
Often times familiar sounds flooded the gym. The springs of the vault shake with vibration as a gymnast flings themself through the air on it, the smack on the ground as someone lands a back handspring, the crack of the beam when a routine is messed up, and voices of encouragement.
“Keep working. Try again. You got this,” all echoed throughout the gym. Lewis blended in amongst all of this sound and at the same exact time he stood out. The reason being, he was usually the only male in the gym.
He could walk in and practice his floor routine for 30 minutes, uninterrupted. On a good day, he had a coach there guiding him, but often times he was left to himself. He could finish and glance over at the balance beam.
He could go practice there and then check the bars.
The routine never changed. For as long as Lewis did gymnastics he was alone in the gym, or had very little supervision. “I was by myself. I never really had anyone to rely on or had people rely on me,” he said.
Lewis began gymnastics at a young age, when he was only about seven or eight. In those initial years he had a team around him, but slowly as he aged the teammates faded.
“When I first started gymnastics I had a team. Then, for unspoken reasons, they all just decided that they didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore. Back to back to back they all just left. It was me by myself and it was like alright what do I do now.”
Without a supporting cast or a guiding hand Lewis was free to do anything he pleased.
“I just kind of did my own thing and did what I wanted too. I didn’t have a lot of boundaries,” he said. “I had my fair share of discipline, but it probably wasn’t as intense as other teams. I could kind of free roam and do what I wanted too.”
Despite a lack of guidance the talent Lewis had for the sport was obvious, and he made the most of his practice time.
“During tenth or eleventh grade of high school I sort of had the realization that yeah I could definitely do this in college.”
Lewis was talented, but his arrival at Springfield was a culture shock the minute he entered his first practice.
Matthew Davis took over as Springfield’s mens coach after Lewis’ s freshman season when he replaced the legendary Steve Posner. Despite not being around for the first season of Lewis’s career Davis understood what he went through.
“It can be a big adjustment when you move to the college scene and suddenly you have 20 other athletes with you.” Lewis began his freshman year with eight other freshman and a total roster of 20 other gymnasts.
“It took me quite a while,” Lewis said about his integration into a routine. “Adjustments wise I was adjusted, but mentally I was used to being alone. Where I came from in my gym I didn’t have a team, When I came here it was a different environment and it was kind of strange.”
“There was a structure and I had to get used to it. My attitude had to change. I had to be on time, show respect to other people, the social aspect of everything.”
Eventually, Lewis settled into a routine. He is an all around gymnast, a spot that was open on the Springfield roster and he jumped right in and took. Lewis had a solid, yet unspectacular freshman season.
To put that in perspective an all around gymnast does six events. In his second year at Springfield Lewis has already broken four of his personal best out of the six events he does. Additionally, he also broke his best all around score in his sophomore campaign too.
It was after the season that things really started to change for him. Davis came in as the Springfield coach and Lewis began competing for team Jamaica.
He had to focus on his collegiate and international career at the same time. Lewis had the opportunity to compete at the Gymnastics World Championships in Montreal, Quebec. That provided a stepping stone for the start of his sophomore year.
Davis saw a new version of Lewis after he returned from the competition. “That really woke him up to realize his potential in the sport,” said Davis.
Lewis returned from Montreal with a new found focus on the sport and a dedication to honing his craft in the gym. After seeing the talent that was around him in the World Championships, his belief in his own abilities and potential was raised.
“I could see it when he came back that he was a little more focused. That event helped his gymnastics and was a great opportunity to see other gymnasts around the world and where he could go.”
Lewis’s new found confidence propelled his own status and the status of the Springfield program. His teammate Matthew Koy said, “That definitely raises the gyms pedigree. The fact that he has already successfully competed at the International level.”
Since then, Lewis has had a dominant sophomore season. He has set career highs in the floor exercise (14.200), rings (13.650), vault (14.400), parallel bars (13.450), and all-around (80.800).
Davis has credited Lewis’s work ethic for the success, “He’s great to have in the gym and he’s one of those athletes that has the talent to compete with anyone in the NCAA. He really worked hard in the gym and is easy for the coaches to coach.”
“We call it being a coachable athlete,” added Davis. “He takes our corrections easy, we can easily talk to him and he will work on what we say. He works hard.”
Lewis has recognized what he’s done, “I’m pretty proud of myself with the results I’ve gotten this year. It’s been a lot better than last year. Last year was rough trying to adjust to the new level of training. This year I’m a lot more confident.”
With the season almost over Lewis has been named the ECAC Gymnast of the Week five times, and now he is fully comfortable with having a team around him and leading by example.
Gymnastics consist of competing individually, but Lewis now knows the importance of the group.
“It’s still a team,” he says. “Even though when you get up and it’s only you doing that routine it reflects back on the whole team and it matters. It’s individual stuff, but it’s the team scores that matter and determines where we get to go.”
As Lewis moves towards his junior year two things are aligning for him: a transition into a leadership role and a goal at an Olympic bid in 2020.
Despite not being overly vocal, Lewis knows he can make an impact as a leader. “My kind of character I don’t always say ‘hey you do that, and you do that,’ that’s not my style,” he says.
“My style is to help and spread positivity amongst the team. I like jokes here and there and to be the funny guy.”
The Olympics may seem like more of a long shot, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. His coach believes in his potential, “A goal is going to the 2020 Olympics for team Jamaica and I think that is a very realistic goal for him. A little more focus these next couple of years and I think he has a very bright future in the NCAA and beyond.”
Lewis has come along way from his days alone in a gym in Baltimore where the only time he was not alone in the gym was for competitions. Oddly enough, one of those he competed against was his current teammate Koy.
He saw that potential years ago when no matter what he tried he always found himself looking back up at Lewis again in the end.
“When we would compete against each other. I would upgrade my entire set of moves and still at the end on the podium I am looking up there at him like ‘oh man, c’mon.’”