Sports

A life taken too soon

Gymnast Katie Haggard, shown here before state in April 2007, set the bar high at OGC. - Jesse Beals/staff photo 2007
Gymnast Katie Haggard, shown here before state in April 2007, set the bar high at OGC.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/staff photo 2007

Down to the Wire

By AARON MANAGHAN

Sports editor

Horrible things have to happen for a reason.

That’s the only thing Greg Mutchler can believe in the face of a tragedy that robbed the Olympic Gymnastics Center, Mutchler, a community, and most importantly, the family of 13-year-old Katie Haggard.

Haggard, an outstanding gymnast at OGC before moving to Connecticut last year, died Sunday when a combination of the flu and MRSA pneumonia attacked her lungs, forcing an emergency surgery that stacked the odds against her. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staph aureus, is a common bacterium resistant to certain antibiotics.

“It’s been pretty tough,” said Mutchler, Haggard’s coach at OGC.

Haggard and her family had just flown back from Groton, Conn., where the Navy family visited friends they made during their time in the area. Haggard became very sick, with the illnesses ultimately requiring her to undergo surgery at Children’s Hospital in Seattle at the end of February.

“I told the kids when I went to the hospital and saw Katie, if anyone was gonna be able to do this, it was Katie,” an emotional Mutchler said Thursday.

Sunday, Haggard lost the battle however, losing too much blood despite making it through the surgery.

Mutchler still remembers the first time Haggard walked into his gym four years ago.

“‘I want to be on that wall,’” he recalled Haggard saying when she saw the wall displaying the banners of OGC’s finest across the years. “That’s what she said.”

And she meant it.

As an 8-year-old, she started out at Level 5, progressing quickly, even skipping a level to jump to Level 7 after just one year. In 2005, Haggard won the state Level 7 vault championship. Just two years later, she achieved a Level 8 standing, making her the gym’s highest. She advanced all the way to the regional championships that year. In addition to the gym, she attended Central Kitsap Junior High School before moving.

Haggard’s work ethic was evident on the mats.

“I just want to practice my routine and stay focused,” Haggard said before state in 2007. “Just be prepared for what’s going to happen. Going to bigger meets really helps you. You can be more confident.”

But at the end of the day it was still all about pouring her passion into the sport she loved.

“I’m really excited,” she said before state that year.

Before she was hospitalized, Haggard was able to revisit the gym, which still holds many of her former teammates and friends.

“Katie was able to come back to the gym and say goodbye to all the kids,” Mutchler said.

That’s gone a long way as the gymnasts, her friends, try to cope with the loss.

“Talk about emotional stuff at the gym. But it was actually good,” Mutchler said of returning to practice. “Everyone is really supportive.”

In truth, the gym has become a support center of sorts for those mourning the loss of Haggard. After all, that’s just how big her impact was on the gym, its athletes and coaches.

“From what they remember, they all see Katie as that leader,” Mutchler said. “She was the highest level we had in the gym. Katie is gonna be such a good inspiration for all our kids.”

That leadership made sense as the oldest of four children to parents Brad and Tricia, who also coached at OGC.

“As the oldest, she always seemed to have more leadership,” Mutchler said. “She was very stern, focused, determined. She’s one of those goal-oriented kids.”

With a combination of skill and personality, Mutchler said he misses the smile that once brightened the gym more than ever.

“Katie had the talent going (for her), she had her goals going (for her), she had her mom going for her as far as support,” Mutchler said. “It’s going to change me a lot. This has brought some emotions I haven’t felt in a long time.”

But for OGC, the beat must go on. The gym’s Level 7 team competes at state this weekend through Monday.

“For the kids, it’s been tough,” he said.

In memory of Katie, they’ll be competing wearing pink donned with elephants, Katie’s favorite animal. And while competing will no doubt be difficult for the gymnasts, they’re not doing it for themselves.

“This state meet, it’s for Katie,” Mutchler said. “We’re not going to forget Katie.”

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