There’s a small chance some key members of the Roseville gymnastics team could miss Saturday’s Class 2A individual championships. Life seems to have gotten in the way and, as co-head coach Mark Curley says often, gymnastics “is just a platform to teach life skills.”
In January of 2014, the team met Taylor Grace Nguyen for the first time. Then a 2-year-old with mischievous eyes that turned up at the corners when she smiled, pushed by marshmallow cheeks, Taylor Grace had been paired with the team through Miracles of Mitch (now known as Pinky Swear Foundation), a local program that matches families of children with cancer with volunteers willing to provide support.
Team members were looking for an opportunity to help. Taylor Grace’s parents, Craig and Shana Nguyen, were hoping to find a positive influence for their daughter, who had spent much of her life battling acute myeloid leukemia.
The bond was instant.
“It wasn’t what we expected,” Shana Nguyen said. “When the team found out she was a toddler and a girl, they just went crazy for her. Usually, a group just sponsors and buys gifts. But this was unique. They were genuinely kind people.”
The team invited the family to the 2014 state meet. The Nguyens made the trip from their Brainerd home for the individual finals, where the antics of a thrilled Taylor Grace, her leukemia in remission, proved as entertaining as what was happening on the floor.
“She’s a spunky little bugger,” Raiders assistant coach Julie Castellano said.
The team paid for the Nguyens to join them at their hotel that evening, where Taylor Grace was the center of attention.
“She was showing off for them,” Shana recalled. “They gave her a Roseville leotard and she had to put it on right away. She talked all about the ‘gymnastics girls’ ”
Said senior Isis Muller, a team captain: “We all got so close to her. You could never tell what she had been through.”
Living two hours apart, the team and Taylor Grace were separated for long periods of time, but she was never far from their thoughts. The team communicated throughout the summer and often sent gifts. Castellano, in particular, made sure the relationship stayed fresh.
“To me, Julie was an angel on Earth,” Shana said. “The team was extra inspiration to Taylor Grace and it seemed like Julie was always there when we needed it, helping us through hard times.”
A long-distance celebration of Taylor Grace’s third birthday took place in December. It was understood that she would be there again for this weekend’s state meet to support her “gymnastics girls.”
About the same time, however, Taylor Grace began experiencing headaches and disoriented behavior. A trip to Children’s Hospital in St. Paul confirmed the worst: The leukemia, in remission for 14 months, had returned in her brain, spine and bone marrow. She was admitted to the hospital’s ICU.
Minors aren’t allowed in the ICU, but team members, through Castellano, made their support known, showering her with gifts, including a new gymnastics leotard.
“She was so excited about that,” Shana said. “She sent a video message wishing them good luck.”
That was the last time they heard from her. On Feb. 11, Taylor Grace Nguyen died.
Roseville played host to the Section 4 meet three days later. Team members scrawled temporary tattoos — a heart intertwined with the initials “TG” — on their upper arms in her honor. Then they went out and did what they always do and won the meet.
“She is such an inspiration,” senior Ellie Dahms said. “She was always happy and always upbeat. It pushes us to want to be better, to do well for her.”
Taylor Grace’s funeral will be held Saturday in Brainerd, the same day as the state meet individual tournament. Castellano and some of the Raiders will attend the funeral before driving back for the meet’s 6 p.m. start. It is a choice that was never questioned, despite the time conflict.
“This is what’s important,” said Castellano, who will recite “The Dash Poem” by Linda Ellis during the service. “We’re showing young people what life is all about.”
Shana Nguyen said she feels lucky to have had the Roseville gymnastics team enrich Taylor Grace’s life.
“They are a wonderful, incredible group of people,” she said. “They really are a family themselves.”