Few people know the meaning of the phrase, “Hard work pays off,” quite like athletes do — especially the ones recovering from an injury.
Don’t try to tell Payton Astin anything different.
Astin, 16, entered Durant High School’s “Miss Cougar” competition and, on March 28, won both her division (lightweight) and the overall title. This came after months of hard work, brought on by the need to switch sports after a string of serious injuries.
Before Astin broke into the local bodybuilding scene, she already was in pretty good shape. Her first true love was cheerleading and, as a natural athlete, loved to tumble. Most recently, she was a part of the Oldsmar-based Cheer Express All-Stars outfit.
“Cheerleading was not just a sport to me, it was a passion,” Astin says. “Being on a Level 5 competitive team gave me the opportunity to travel and compete all over the country. My team has won national competitions and awards.”
Everything was going well for her, until one cheer practice in May 2013.
Astin was working on her tumbling, as usual, when something went wrong. She lost her balance fell, and was knocked unconscious upon landing. Doctors diagnosed her with a severe concussion, which meant that she would have to spent at least two months on the sideline.
“It was a very scary experience,” Astin says. “I had to miss the last three weeks of school, because my everyday activity was affected.”
According to the Hughston Sports Medicine Foundation, a severe (Grade 3) concussion is treated as an emergency. These concussions can lead to unwanted longterm affects, depending on the severity, and can cause dizziness, insomnia, concentration and memory difficulties, and headaches, among other things.
Astin spent eight weeks on the outside looking in before she was cleared to return to the sport. When she came back, she was all business.
“I trained rigorously to get to the same level I was before my concussion, as well as to master a full,” she says.
Within a few months, she was tumbling fearlessly again. But, while she was working on mastering that full, she landed herself back in the hospital in August.
At the end of one attempt at a full, she landed awkwardly. This time, it was her knee: The landing tweaked her ACL.
Doctors confirmed that Astin’s ACL was torn and required surgery — which meant no cheering for at least one year. She was devastated but had no other choice. Her surgery in November was successful, and she began to go to physical therapy three times a week.
But, as an athlete, sitting around the house all day just wasn’t going to cut it.
It’s just difficult for many athletes coming off a major knee injury to find something that they can do to stay in shape and have fun. Most sports, whether contact-filled or otherwise, are out of the question for much of the athlete’s rehabilitation period.
After all, they’re supposed to be spending rehab time strengthening the muscles, getting their agility and range of motion back. Which is where Astin’s sister, Madison, came into the picture.
Like her younger sister, Madison also won Miss Cougar in her junior year — 2012. Before that, the girls’ aunt, Ashley, won the inaugural event in 2004. There was still plenty of time between the surgery and the 2014 competition for training, so Madison encouraged her sister to try it out.
“I am a very driven and athletic person, and wanted to find a sport that I was physically able to do while I was recovering,” Astin says. “Madison suggested competing in Miss Cougar, and I thought it would be a perfect fit.”
It was. The new workouts satisfied Astin’s desire to compete, even if she was only competing against herself, and did not negatively interfere with her knee rehab schedule. Over time, she really grew to love what she was doing — even though she still hadn’t done the Durant competition yet.
“I’ve really enjoyed being able to see my body change as a result of my workouts and dieting,” she says.
And, of course, she got plenty of help from her family along the way. Her mother, Buffy, trained her the entire time, coaching and motivating her whenever she needed it. Madison and the rest of the Astin family served as what she called a great support system.
She planned her routine carefully, blending both dance and fitness poses in any way that would maximize her muscle definition onstage. Although a bodybuilder’s routine isn’t nearly as physically taxing as a cheerleader’s, it still takes a lot of work to get it right: Fitness judges grade competitors much like cheer judges evaluate their competitors.
At the end of competition night, Astin walked off the stage with a pair of big trophies and an even bigger smile.
“Winning the title of Miss Cougar is an honor, and I am so happy my hard work paid off,” Astin says.
NINE MORE MONTHS
Although the Cougar competition is now out of the way, Astin isn’t done with bodybuilding — she says she’s been approached about competing in a professional figure competition and is seriously considering entering.
But, as of right now, that’s not set in stone — she still has much more physical therapy ahead of her.
And also, there’s school. Missing the final three weeks of her sophomore year was not something Astin wanted to do, and she takes her studies seriously. She’s already planning on going away to college and majoring in business but doesn’t have a school in mind yet.
“She is an amazing young lady,” Durant AVID Coordinator Courtney Singletary says. “Great grades, leadership and heart.”
Most importantly, though, is a return to cheerleading. Although many people would be discouraged from returning to the sport after suffering injuries such as hers, Astin doesn’t even blink when asked if she’s planning a comeback.
“Absolutely,” she says. “I have to complete nine months of physical therapy and, once I have fully recovered, my doctor will clear me to start back.”
Contact Justin Kline at email@example.com.