Carissa Kraus battles through injuries, financial uncertainty to excel for ASU gymnastics

Carissa Kraus swings around on a pair of bars. Various flips and turns follow as she maneuvers between short and tall bar. It’s an incredible feat, but Kraus manages to make it look simple.

Maybe it’s because she’s been swinging on those bars for more than half her life. Kraus jumps up to the tall bar and begins her windup to dismount. Three revolutions around and Kraus projects into the air, twisting and contorting as she approaches the ground. Kraus sticks the landing with perfect balance, and upon realizing it, fist pumps the air with a wide smile.

The fist pump perfectly embodies the spirit of the 20-year-old, one of constant positivity and enthusiasm. Only a sophomore, Kraus has evolved into one of ASU gymnastics’ top performers and leaders. It’s all a dream for Kraus, especially considering she didn’t even expect to be in Arizona this year, let alone excelling for the Sun Devils.

From Maple Grove, Minn., Kraus competed in club gymnastics and performed well, but injuries hindered her visibility to colleges.

“When I was in high school, I was level 10 as (a) freshman (the highest level of club gymnastics),” Kraus said. “I never competed a full year of level 10. I never got the chance, because one year, I tore my meniscus and rolled my ankle really bad."

Kraus tore her meniscus a second time and suffered shin splints so bad, Kraus said she couldn't walk on them.

“It was just one thing after another, so I just never competed a full year of level 10," Kraus said. "I never went to Nationals until my senior year, and that’s really where people get looked at is Nationals.”

While most recruits are contacted throughout their sophomore and junior years before committing to a school in their senior year, Kraus wasn’t recruited, not even by ASU. Kraus was the one who took the initial interest in the Sun Devils and got in contact with coaches.

“What pushed me to go here was really myself and my coach from back home," Kraus said. "We’d contact (assistant coach Tom Ward) every week, and I’d call him. I’d tell him how practices were going, and he watched me at Nationals and honestly, my Nationals was not good, but he saw the potential in me. He was a big help for me getting here.”

Once Kraus arrived in Tempe as a walk-on, she became an immediate performer for ASU. She scored a 9.800 or more nine times on vault and scored a career-high 9.825 on bars at the regionals last season.

While she was excelling, Kraus didn’t think that she would be returning to ASU for her sophomore through senior years. Without the financial aid of a scholarship, her prospects of staying a Sun Devil were bleak.

“In March of last year, it really wasn’t looking good. There was nothing open and no plans of scholarships opening," Kraus said. "Honestly, I didn’t think I was coming back."

Kraus is one of four kids in her family, making it near-impossible for her to afford out-of-state tuition. So her dad encouraged her to stay in her home state of Minnesota.

"I went to ASU and absolutely fell in love with it and begged my dad to go here," Kraus said. "He said I could go here for one year but after that, we couldn’t afford to pay for it anymore. So I didn’t think I was coming back, because there weren’t any open scholarships."

Ward recognized the difficulty of a walk-on earning a scholarship.

“It’s really hard. We commit scholarships so early now,” Ward said. “It’s not easy to earn one once you’re here, but if something comes open and you’re competing on two or three events, like she’s done, (it's possible). She competed at a very high level her freshman year on vault and bars.”

While performance on the floor is important, when giving scholarships the coaches evaluate further.

“We look at their grades; are they an asset to the team with their persona? Kind of the overall look," Ward said.

Kraus earned a 3.88 GPA her second semester freshman year as a marketing major at the W.P. Carey School of Business.

Gymnastics is afforded a finite amount of scholarships. But different from other sports which can offer partial scholarships, gymnastics can only offer them all or nothing.

“I was told that there would be a possibility of getting (a scholarship), but that it takes a lot of work to deserve one," Kraus said. "He also told me that it’s only if a scholarship opens, so it was never really 100 percent but just knowing that if I worked hard that I could possibly get one kept me motivated."

Still, with no certainty on whether she would receive a scholarship or not, Kraus prepared to leave ASU, but stayed insistent to her father, Tim, on how much she wanted to stay.

“I begged him over summer and worked for my grandma and said I’d pay him back," Kraus said. "He could see in my eyes that I just wanted it so bad. He allowed me to come back, and I was just so thankful. It all worked out, the fact that he had faith in me to let me come back.”

Finally, Kraus was made aware that due to an athlete going on medical leave, a scholarship had opened up for her.

“When I first got my scholarship, (coach) John (Spini) called me into the office, I kinda had a feeling of what it was about, but I told myself to not get my hopes up," Kraus said. "I was just really scared to go in there, because I didn’t want it to not be what I thought it was going to be but when he told me I started bawling my eyes out and couldn’t even talk.

"I signed the papers and said thank you like a bunch of times, and I called my dad right after and I was bawling on the phone, and I think he knew what happened. He was crying; my mom was crying," Kraus said. "I’m just so thankful. John worked so hard; he came down to Minnesota to meet my family. Everybody who was on my side the whole time it just makes me so thankful."

Today, Kraus can look back on the struggle she has faced with a new perspective, but while the scholarship makes all the years of hard work and dedication worth it, she isn’t letting it prevent her from improving.

“I went from doing two events last year to working all around this year," Kraus said. "Just because they gave me the chance of getting a scholarship, I want to give them back 110 percent. I’m pushing to do all events and make a difference. I would never want to let them down."

Reach the reporter or follow him on Twitter @shane_writes

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