⋅ Back when she was 12 years old, Robertson was an elite gymnast who had won multiple state titles. A few months before her biggest meet ever – the National Gymnastics Championships in Orlando – she said she fell off the uneven bars, severely injured her back and was rushed to the hospital emergency room.
“When I fell, I landed funny on my back and neck,” she explained. “They found I’d fractured two bones in my back and I ended up in a back brace.”
She said she was still wearing the brace when she headed to Orlando. Undaunted, she got back up on the same uneven bars and won a national title.
⋅ When she gave up gymnastics a year later, she first joined her older sister, Brittany, on a cheer team from Miamisburg and they finished 11th in a world competition.
\Soon after that she joined Fernandez’s track team at Wayne and immediately began to shine until, at age 15, she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. The inflammation it causes can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart, lungs and brain.
There’s no cure.
The disease triggers things like rheumatoid arthritis which left her, as she told Fernandez, feeling “like a 90-year-old woman with arthritis.”
Another side effect is recurring kidney infections. Some of hers landed her in the hospital.
On the day of the district track meet her senior year, she had such a severe infection that it left her “extremely sick” and barely able to make it through her classes.
Although she wanted to go home, she knew that would derail her effort in the 100-meter hurdles. She had to finish in the top three at district to advance to the regional meet.
But right before her event, she retreated to the restroom and was feeling pain, fatigue and fear.
“I didn’t think she was going to make it out of the bathroom that day,” Fernandez said. “But then she came out and she had that look that said, “Naah, I’m gonna do this!’” “I pushed through it,” she said. “I knew I was going to have to live with lupus the rest of my life and if I started getting used to it stopping me from doing things, I didn’t know what kind of future I’d have. So no matter what, I wasn’t going to give in.
“I don’t know if that’s toughness or just stubbornness and determination.
“I remember sitting on the track right before my race and my mom physically tying up my spikes for me. Then I stepped up to the line and finished third.
“After the race, I went back to the bathroom and just bawled my eyes out.”
⋅ Now 21, she lives with three teammates in a house near the UD campus. She said she has to get up a good two hours before she leaves for class, just to be sure she does all the things that help her get through the day.
Along with taking medication, she follows a special diet to try to manage the effects of lupus.
“I need time to make my breakfast and I’ve got to be sure I stretch and am feeling good,” she said.
“I know I’m going to have rheumatoid arthritis every day of my life. Even when I write just a five-paragraph paper, my fingers swell. I really don’t remember what it feels like not to be in pain every day, but as terrible as that sounds, I’ve gotten used to it.”
She said she also needs to take short rests two or three times a day, “just so I have some energy in my tank. With lupus, I have extremely low energy levels.”
And yet, you’ll not find many students getting more out of their college experience.
Besides her track and field accomplishments – she finished second in the pole vault at last year’s Atlantic 10 Conference meet and ranks second all-time in the long jump at UD – she is making a name for herself away from the competition.
A media production major with an emphasis on journalism, she was working as an intern last summer for Krystal Warren, UD’s Associate Athletics Director of Communications, when she conducted several interviews of other athletes for UD’s Instagram Live account.
Her efforts were called On the Fly and she did “an amazing job” Warren said. “She’s pretty awesome and has done some really cool things.”
Her work led to other appearances around campus. She was the host of an interview with Chantae McMillan, the Olympic heptathlete who trains in Dayton, and she emceed and performed in the campus talent show.
Two weeks ago she worked as the PA announcer at a Flyers’ baseball game against Kent State and she’ll host the upcoming R.U.D.Y.S. awards on campus.
She’s also the track and field program’s representative on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
And last year she won the Rising Star Award that’s given to a UD athlete who already has made a positive mark on campus and shows future promise.
“She’s really found her niche at UD,” said her mom, Pam Robertson. “I think she’s headed in a great direction.”
Fernandez agreed: “To see her excelling like she is right now, it just warms my heart.”
‘It’s the best move I’ve ever made’
Her freshman year at Wayne, Robertson began to experience fatigue and pain in her joints.
Then came a vacation with her mom to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“I got sunburned so bad, it looked like someone threw fire at my face,” she wrote in a first person account for the UD track and field web page. “The entire way home from the trip I was miserable. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and my face, shoulders and legs were covered in blisters.”
She thought she had a severe case of sun poisoning, but after hearing her symptoms the emergency room doctor sent her to a rheumatologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
That’s when she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that afflicts 1.5 million Americans, 90 percent of whom are women between the ages of 15 and 44.
“Knowing she’d have the disease for the rest of her life was really hard for her in the beginning,” Pam said. “She was on this emotional roller coaster where she’d be sad, then mad and then normal. Some of her friends couldn’t handle her ups and downs, but she’s really close to her sister and she leaned on her.”
Robertson remembers those days: “I kind of pitied myself for a year or two and there were times I was in a dark spot mentally.”
She said she finally saw a therapist who helped her concentrate on managing the disease rather than being overwhelmed by it.
Besides her sister, she was buoyed by her mom and Fernandez.
“He’s like my second dad,” she said. “He’s always supported me, but what I appreciate most is that he never babied me.
“He learned all he could about lupus and personalized workouts for me, but he still would be on my butt in practice. He’d say, ‘I know you’re tired. I know you’re sick, but one more rep!’
“Then after practice he’d give me a hug and tell me he was proud of me. And he was always the loudest coach, cheering me at the finish line.”
As for her mom, she said: “She’s been at every single doctor’s appointment I’ve ever had and she picks me up from college in the middle of the night when I’m feeling real sick and just want my mom.”
Robertson excelled at Wayne where, under the tutelage of Fernandez and assistant Jason Craig, she twice was named the Greater Western Ohio Conference (GWOC) Athlete of the Year and became the first female athlete at Wayne to qualify for state in four events – pole vault, long jump, hurdles and the triple jump, which she won.
“Even with her lupus, she is one of the top five kids – boys and girls – that I’ve ever coached,” Fernandez said.
Her mom said she got college offers from 25 to 30 schools and initially chose Indiana Tech, an NAIA track powerhouse in Fort Wayne.
“They have a national level team and I was on a full ride,” Robertson said. “It seemed perfect, but unfortunately, once I got there my lupus complications were at an all-time high and it wasn’t smart for me to be 2 ½ hours away from my family and my doctor. And being so young, it was just overwhelming.”
“I think she realized how much she still needed us,” Pam said of herself and husband Mark.
After a semester, Robertson decided to transfer and contacted UD, which, under a different head coach, had not recruited her in high school she said.
This time, when the Flyers offered a scholarship, she took it and now says: “It’s the best move I’ve ever made.”
She said her teammates, coaches and trainers – especially assistant trainer Steve Porterfield and Mark Thobe, the coordinator of strength and conditioning – have embraced her and helped her deal with lupus.
“I know it’s gotten to the point where some people are tired of hearing us talk about it, but there is a real sense of community here,” she said. “Right now, I could never picture myself on any other campus.”
Back to competition
When the COVID pandemic shut down sports at UD, last year’s outdoor track season and this year’s indoor schedule were canceled.
With restrictions lifted for this outdoor season, the Flyers now have competed in three meets. At the multi-team Yellow Jackets Collegiate Open at Cedarville University March 27, Robertson finished second in the pole vault, but said she stumbled in another matter:
“I hadn’t competed outdoors in over a year and thought one coat of sunscreen would be fine. But I ended up burned and severely hurting for at least a week.”
Usually she wears a hat, extra sunscreen and stands beneath an umbrella as she awaits her turn to compete.
Last weekend at the seven-team Oliver Nikoloff Invitational at the University of Cincinnati, she finished second in the long jump and fourth in the pole vault.
“COVID took a toll on all of us, but a month from now at our conference meet, she’s going to be right where she needs to be,” Gordon said. “She hasn’t even touched her potential yet, but she has a lot of confidence and she’s a gamer.
“The second she gets on the runway, she’s a completely different person. And once she has that one good day, she’s going to do some crazy stuff and really break out.”
The same thing has been happening away from the track, thanks in part to her On The Fly interviews. And she said lupus has actually helped her there by making her more empathetic:
“Before I was diagnosed, I’d say I was ultimately a very selfish teenager who didn’t really see what was going on in other people’s lives. Feeling some empathy has enabled me to see other people for who they really are.”
She said that’s enhanced her budding journalism career:
“I especially love learning about new people and what they went through. And I love it that it’s something new and different every day.
“If you come back in five years, I hope you’ll find I’m a sports anchor at ESPN. And I hope I’m marketable because I’m able to do anything people ask me to do.”
That’s already the way she handles life.
And it’s why she may be the toughest athlete at UD.