From family tradition to family practice

CBS alum Marie Roethlisberger used her undergraduate experience as a springboard to a career as an Olympic gymnast and family physician.

Reached on a weekday afternoon at her Madison, Wisconsin medical clinic, Marie Roethlisberger (B.S. Biochemistry, '91 | M.D. ’96) apologizes for having rescheduled the interview a few days before. “I caught influenza from one of my patients,” she says, adding, “You know, my case was much milder because I’d gotten the vaccine.” Meaningful pause. “Have you had your flu shot yet? There’s still time to get one.” Clearly, this is a physician with a calling for helping the people around her stay well.

Yet, in her younger years and undergraduate college days, Roethlisberger's focus was on the uneven bars, balance beams, vault and floor exercises. She was a world-class gymnast and a member of the USA National Gymnastics team for six years, making it all the way to the1984 Olympics.

It runs (or is that leaps?) in the family

Marie’s grandparents were gymnasts, and her father, Fred Roethlisberger, competed in the 1968 Olympics. “Gymnastics was just the family thing,” Roethlisberger says. Her younger brother John competed in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

Roethlisberger credits gymnastics with helping her thrive despite a hearing impairment. “It happened after a bout of meningitis when I was two years old,” she says. “I’m deaf in one ear and  wear a hearing aid in the other. It’s hard to hear well when I’m in crowds or around a lot of people, but most of my days are spent one-on-one in examination rooms, and I communicate well with patients.”

Looking back, she sees many reasons why she grew to love one sport so much that she was willing to devote years of her life to perfecting her skills. “When I was growing up, gymnastics was almost like a lifeline for me. Things were difficult socially because of my hearing. Gymnastics was a passion because I was good at it, and that gave me self-confidence,” she says. When asked if any special accommodations needed to be made during competitions because of her disability, she says with a laugh, “They just had to turn the music up loud.”

Parade of nations: “I still get goosebumps”

As much as she loved gymnastics, it did take a toll on her body. “I developed what’s called ‘Little Leaguer’s Elbow,’” she explains. “Overuse caused bone chips, which had to be removed in multiple surgeries, and always at the wrong time, like during world championships or the Olympics.” Even though she could not compete because of injuries in both elbows, she was an alternate at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and finally saw her dream of international competition come true when she competed in the 1985 World Championships in Montreal.

When asked to look back on a memorable moment as an Olympian, she mentions the Parade of Nations. “Since we were the host country in 1984, the U.S. was the last to enter the stadium. There was this incredible thundering noise. I still get goosebumps from head to toe when I think about it – it was something you could never have expected or imagined.”

“A big playground to discover”

After 1985, Marie enrolled at the university and competed on the school’s team. She was the Big 10 AA champion twice, 1990 NCAA Regional all-around champion, 1990 NCAA National bars champion and recipient of the Honda Award (top NCAA athlete of the year for all sports). In 1998, she was inducted into the Minnesota Hall of Fame. “I still hold the only women's gymnastics NCAA national title, for the uneven bars,” she adds.

When it came time to choose a major, she thinks all those surgeries might have helped spark an interest in the medical profession, where she attended the university for both her undergraduate and medical degrees. “My memories of those days are all good,” she says. “Being involved in sports allowed me to fit in easily within such a huge community. And the College of Biological Sciences, with that great faculty, made it seem like part of a smaller family. It was a big playground to discover, and I have to admit that I still daydream sometimes of being back at the College of Biological Sciences — those were the freedom days.”

On that wistful note, we conclude the interview. Dr. Roethlisberger has her practice to attend to, and I have to go get a flu shot.

— Julie Kendrick

Roethlisberger pictured at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She competed for the U of M team where she became a Big 10 AA champion twice, 1990 NCAA Regional all-around champion, 1990 NCAA National bars champion and recipient of the Honda Award (top NCAA athlete of the year for all sports).