July 22, 2021 5:00 AM

Balancing life and medicine

How three former gymnasts apply lessons learned to their medical careers.

Gymnast performing at events in three photos
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For Deborah Berman, M.D., Aimee Rolston, M.D., M.S., and Katherine Zurales, M.D., M.B.A, collegiate gymnastics careers drew them to their professional paths in medicine.

And now, all three are physicians in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Michigan Health Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.

For Rolston, a gynecology-oncology fellow, it was a major knee surgery at 15 years old that made her consider the field of medicine.

“My medical team of surgeons, nurses and physical therapists had a huge impact on me as I navigated my journey, not only back to health, but to being a highly competitive athlete ready for the college recruitment scene,” Rolston said. “That experience definitely sparked my interest in medicine, and while I didn’t end up in a sports medicine field, I did choose a specialty that involves being a part of pivotal moments in women’s lives.”

An early passion

All three began gymnastics around kindergarten and fell in love with the sport right away.

“I loved moving, flipping and being active, and I knew that being active made me feel good in my mind, body and soul,” Berman, a maternal fetal medicine specialist, said. “Even as a little kid, I felt passionate about gymnastics and the hard work and commitment it took. I started competing at age 7, and it just took off from there.”

Years of competing throughout elementary, middle and high school led all three to being recruited by major universities. Berman was a California state champion and was recruited to the University of Michigan, Rolston joined the women’s gymnastics team at Stanford University and Zurales, who is currently a second-year resident in the OB-GYN department, was recruited to U-M on a full-ride scholarship.

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Each had successful and impressive college gymnastics careers: Berman was a four-time Academic All-American, Academic All-Big Ten and Big Ten champion, and placed in second and fourth in the NCAA National Championships. Rolston was the 2007 Stanford Gymnast of the Year, a three-time Academic All-American, named to the All PAC-10 Academic Team, and placed third and fifth in the NCAA National Championships. Zurales was a seven-time NCAA All-American, the 2013 Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient, the 2013 Big Ten vault champion, earned second place on the balance beam at the NCAA National Championships, was a Scholastic All-American and a two-time team captain.

Striking similarities

Each said their college gymnastics careers lent to their interest in becoming a gynecologist, and all three attended the U-M Medical School.

“It wasn’t until starting medical school that I began to see the true similarities between gymnastics and medicine — the dedication and drive needed to succeed, the hours of hard work, the true team atmosphere, the experience of performing under pressure and the notion of continually working toward a common goal,” Zurales said. “Now as an OB-GYN resident, I see these parallels even clearer. Some of my favorite parts of my job stem from the skills I learned in gymnastics. For example, I love coaching patients through labor, including teaching them to move optimally, encouraging them through difficult moments and working together toward a shared goal of delivering a healthy baby.”

"Gymnastics taught me the importance of the team and what it means to be a part of something bigger than myself."

They also took the lessons they learned in gymnastics and applied them to their medical careers.

“Watch any gymnastics meet and you will see teammates supporting each other, raising and building one another up,” Berman said. “Similarly, in the operating room, on labor and delivery or in a fetal surgery, it takes a well-oiled, collaborative, supportive team with a positive culture and climate to achieve the most detail-oriented, safe, caring and supportive care of our pregnant patients and their families.”

Rolston agreed: “Perhaps most importantly, gymnastics taught me the importance of the team and what it means to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

‘Take chances’

Berman, Rolston and Zurales all encourage other women that they, too, can have multiple facets to their personal and professional lives.

“Follow your passions and take chances,” Zurales said. “If something interests you or inspires you, pursue it. Even if something seems impossible, there is usually a way to make it happen by being creative and flexible.”

Rolston added: “Success comes from intentional, daily effort in making small improvements that progress one toward their goals. Never forget the importance of the team and lean on others as you all strive to improve.”

All three noted that they are still connected to their alma maters and love supporting their teams and witnessing their successes.

“My husband and I watched the U-M women’s team win the NCAA National Championships this past April and both of us were in tears when they won!” Zurales said.

Berman agreed, having not only remained involved with the current team, but also previous teammates from the past 30 years.

“My former teammates and I have these crazy, fun and supportive texting threads,” she said. “My thumbs were sore from such crazy texting during the National Championships! Although we were all across the country watching it separately, we were actually watching it together. When the team won NCAAs this year, we were screaming, crying and celebrating with pure joy and delight. We couldn’t be prouder of this team.”

Another unique bond all three women have? They all met their husbands during college, who were on the men’s gymnastics teams. Zurales’ and Berman’s husbands competed for U-M; Rolston’s husband competed for Stanford.

“Interestingly, all three of us married gymnasts, which isn’t common,” Berman said. “Our husbands all had remarkable gymnastics careers, and now professional lives, too! We all share this bond of not only a love for gymnastics, but also the desire to support people as much as possible.”

Berman’s husband, Rich Dopp, M.D., is a child adolescent psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine, Rolston’s husband, Brice Rolston, M.D., M.B.A., is a U-M-trained emergency medicine physician with continued endeavors in Ghana through the Ross School of Business, and Zurales’ husband, Ian Makowske, M.B.A., M.S., is a financial planner and analyst.

The six former gymnasts continue to focus on teamwork and support others in their daily professional lives.

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This article was additionally reviewed by Allison Mi.