hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 2, 2013

Gymnast Paulhus defies death -- twice!

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — You may not know Gina Paulhus, unless you’re into gymnastic circles, training and fitness. It is in those circles where she has built up a strong reputation throughout Greater Haverhill.

All while surviving life-threatening emergency abdominal surgeries in 2008 and 2009 due to intestinal obstructions.

Doctors told her she would never regain her previous performance level, but she gave them a dose of her therapy. Gina Paulhus is an example of true grit and gratitude.

She happens to be the current Ladies AAU Level All-Around Gymnastics Champion in an arena reserved for the extremely fit. The fact she’s a home exercise coach and works out consistently hasn’t hurt.

“I never intended to have fitness as a career goal,” she admits. “I started out working in the YMCA fitness center because my father went there. I started taking gymnastics classes in high school, which geared me toward becoming a therapist. All through college, I continued working as a trainer and started my own business as a senior.”

That would be a venture called Home Bodies, aimed at helping those who don’t prefer a gym atmosphere. She figured it to be an untapped niche and the results proved complimentary. Out of it came a book she authored called “Mind Over Fatter.”

She considers it her “fitness bible” and all her clients have a copy. In the past nine years, she’s rehabilitated a woman who had a hip replacement and people with chronic back pain, and motivated those who were depressed and dejected.

Paulhus speaks and guides from experience. She is an established gymnast, but her life suddenly spiraled backwards with intestinal obstructions which took her away from work and curtailed all exercise. After she beat that, along came more surgery the next year and then a hernia.

All she hoped for was to regain her life — one cautious step at a time, left with scars and an abdominal brace.

“Fitness is empowering,” she describes. “No matter what life throws your way, just about everyone can go work out and take some power back. I love the fight.”

And dreams do come true. Last year, Paulhus won the Ladies Division National AAU Floor Title, the culmination of 17 years of hard work, sweat and yes, tears. She happened to be ill that day when performing a new floor routine.

Whatever it was, the judges were convinced and gave her the gold. Here’s how she describes the moment.

“I didn’t place on the other events and was ready to gather up my belongings and head home when they made the announcement. I had won the floor title and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for days.”

It started with beginner classes at age 10. Three years later, she wound up winning state medals on bars and beam during high school. The fact she couldn’t make the college gymnastics team as a walk-on didn’t sap her enthusiasm. She continued training at a club level and found the competitive edge getting sharper.

After growing up in Amesbury and graduating as valedictorian of her class in 1999, Paulhus earned a psychology degree from UMass/Lowell. She lives in Haverhill with husband Bryan, who acts as a caretaker for his twin brother Brent. He has suffered from ALS during the past 11 years.

“He’s almost completely paralyzed and needs care around the clock,” says Paulhus. “In watching Brent’s sickness progress over the years, I learned just how fortunate I am to be relatively healthy with a disease I can control. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.”

Given the chance, she’d love to meet Olympic phenom Nadia Comaneci and secretly wishes she could become a “hick” because of her love for country music.

Bad TV turns into a good venue, all the more time for fitness. An elite or college gymnastics meet is her escape valve.

And what of today’s generation — gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and what they’ve been able to achieve as American idols? What is it, $10.25 million in endorsements and incentives, not counting the $50,000 gift she received from the United States government for winning her two gold medals?

“Well deserved and wonderful,” says Paulhus “The American gymnastics team is a huge inspiration. They have such a dedicated and systematic way of training, and it shows. I’m pleased they have an easier time making endorsement deals. Gymnasts work just as hard, if not harder, than so many other athletes. Their careers tend to be relatively short.”

Paulhus takes life one day at a time, living it like her last on earth.

“I’m grateful for all the great role models and mentors I’ve had,” she notes. “I aspire to be that for others.”

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.