Chrissy Weathersby: Born To Fly High
Feb. 28, 2009
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-America football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-America basketball star whose contributions have an impact each day, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Lansing-area writer and broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the best of all-time in 2009.
She has had all the injuries you would expect for a prominent member of the United Stuntwomen's Association. And none of them came in her line of work. They were souvenirs from Chrissy Weatherby's abbreviated career in competitive gymnastics, including two seasons at Michigan State.
Born in Chicago and raised in Colorado Springs, Colo., she found her way to East Lansing, thanks largely to an energetic head coach. Nearly 13 years later, Weathersby carries Spartan Spirit with her every step of the way.
"I owe it all to a woman named Kathie Klages," Weathersby said of the MSU leader. "I had a chance to go to Ohio State, Utah State, Cal-Berkeley and some other schools. . . . I'm feeling so old I can't remember."
At 31 years young, she should have vivid memories of her days in Jenison Field House, starting with the reasons she chose to compete there when others might have stayed closer to home.
"Michigan State had the best team at the time," Weathersby said. "I liked the way the athletes trained. I liked the school. And I really liked the campus."
She liked it more on her visit than she did when she had to get across it in inclement weather with a wide variety of breaks and sprains.
"Colorado is a dry cold," Weathersby said. "Michigan's cold is wet. We had a blizzard really early my freshman year. And I said, 'What have I gotten myself into?' That campus is huge. So I learned to ride a bike in snow, rain, whatever."
The Spartans learned they had added an excellent athlete, especially when healthy, and the type of person who makes everyone better.
"I always liked to help people," Weathersby said. "I enjoyed working in soup kitchens, in nursing homes and with the underprivileged. . . . That same team aspect was something I absolutely loved about college gymnastics."
At 5-foot-2, Weathersby stood tall in a sport with no shortage of potential pitfalls. She was All-Big Ten as a sophomore on the uneven bars, her favorite event, but took more enjoyment in MSU's progress as a unit.
"We had a really young team and all stepped up together," Weathersby said. "We clicked and almost made is to nationals. We were super-close. And in an individual sport, that meant everything. My Olympics dream had ended a lot earlier."
Part of the reason for that was an injury list that rivaled Mickey Mantle's or Bill Walton's. You name it, and Weathersby has smashed it into a place where a body part is not supposed to be.
"The list is endless," she said. "I broke my ankle by overtraining, trying to get to nationals. Physically, it's a very demanding sport. The pounding will get you. I had a broken ankle, a broken wrist and a broken toe. But it was the knee that ultimately did me in. It still bothers me now. Living in L.A. in warm weather makes a big difference, though."
Weathersby competed for the Spartans in two seasons - 1996-97 and 1997-98. By the end of her sophomore year, the physical toll was simply too great. She had to give up the sport she loved and lived to do at a high level.
"That was one of the hardest decisions of my life," Weathersby said. "It was devastating to me at first. Gymnastics had been my life. I ate around it, slept around it and scheduled classes around it. I said, 'Who am I? What do I do now?' It was a very difficult adjustment to make.
"As I look back, it was a blessing. I was able to figure out how to live my life without my sport. It took almost two whole years. No one could understand what I was going through and why it was so hard to quit. That strengthened my resolve to study psychology, so I can help others get through that transition some day."
Without the rigors of competition, she was able to watch MSU go 10-2 in football and to celebrate an NCAA title in men's basketball in 1999-2000. But that only made her adjustment tougher.
"It was a great time to be on campus," Weathersby said. "Unfortunately, it was harder to quit when other athletes were having that kind of success. It was bittersweet."
She had one more class to take and no clear direction for life in the summer of 2000. Weathersby was doing a little coaching at Great Lakes Gymnastics in Lansing. But she was looking for something else when a friend suggested they go on vacation. The friend's brother, an ex-gymnast, just happened to be performing at Disney World.
That visit led to a tryout for Weathersby, who has always been able to get a 4.0 in spontaneity. When she was hired to do stunts in a Tarzan rock show at Animal Kingdom, it was the best of both worlds. She could climb ropes and do rollerblade tricks without the pounding of a balance beam. And she could hear the applause of a crowd once again.
"I did that for two-and-a-half years," Weathersby said. "It was great fun. At the same time, I wanted to do something else. The next step was to find a niche that fit me well. Eventually, I did."
Some of her fellow performers in Orlando were doing part-time stunt work in Miami. So Weathersby started to drive down with them and meet the people who could help her get started. Most were from Southern California, so it didn't take a genius to go where the work was.
"It was one of the craziest jumps and best decisions of my life," Weathersby said. "I packed up my house and moved out there with no guarantees. It was pretty impulsive. And if I'd been older, I might not have done that."
In an industry that looks at looks first, second and third, she was able to find quick work as a body double and learn to do Hollywood stunts. Best of all, she has managed to stay injury-free.
"People think I'm 23," Weathersby said. "I work out about an hour a day. And the work is pretty much feast or famine. But there are certain things I won't do here. I won't get lit on fire - or haven't yet. And I won't do crazy-hard motorcycle stuff."
She's happy to fall out of buildings and do aerial work where gymnastics skills help her. And she has been hit by a car in an actual collision, not a trick-photography, computer-generated crash.
"That car hit in The Brave One with Jodie Foster was my favorite stunt," Weathersby said. "I was doubling for Zoe Kravitz, Lenny's daughter, after a kidnapping. But the car actually hit me. I don't know how far I flew. I do know that air sense helped me. You don't practice a stunt like that."
Weathersby looks like a young Fran Drescher - minus the irritating voice and maddening cackle. And with her body type, it would easy to see how she could resemble Beyonce.
"Most of my work is doubling," said Weathersby, who is listed on her website at 5-3 (5-5 with lifts), 111 pounds. "They can make me look like anyone with enough makeup and hair. I just doubled for a girl who was much, much bigger."
When you can do a twisting dismount from the bars and slam injured joints on the beam, you appreciate the safety precautions in feature film and television production. Still, accidents happen.
"Some actors and actresses do their own stunts," Weathersby said. "But it's very dangerous. People get hurt a lot. I've been lucky that way."
If luck evens out, she is still due for some injury-free years. And she'd love to work with more Spartans like mid-1960s football star Bob Apisa, an actor-stuntman who couldn't have been nicer or more helpful to her.
"We'll see what happens," Weathersby said when asked about her future. "The business changes so quickly. I have one mentor who's 65 and hard as nails. She's still doing stunts.
"But I'd like to get back to school some day and use my degree. Being an athlete, you learn to persevere and be a team player. For every person the public sees out here, there are 10 to 15 others making it happen."
Weathersby said the shooting of films like Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood in Michigan won't be isolated projects with the state's tax incentives. That could bring her back for a visit to campus and a reunion with Klages, whom she contacts primarily by e-mail.
"I love Kathie," Weathersby said. "She'll always be part of my life. But my job is a crazy adventure. When I'm not working, I just like to chill. I am a football freak. It's just totally different here than in the Midwest. Back there, they do it all the way."
Weathersby's life today includes her boyfriend, ex-Tennessee basketball player Eddie Ball. And she continues to grow - not in inches and pounds, but in areas that matter in the real world.
"My body type is going to be different," Weathersby said. "If you're African-American or Hispanic, you tend to be a little more hippy and have a bigger backside and bigger arms. And Disney just had its first black princess last year."
Weathersby saw more discrimination in Florida than she has seen in California, even with the industry's stereotypes and financial pressures.
"Not all black people are gangsters and crackheads," she said. "We're starting to see that we can be doctors and lawyers and presidents. But it's interesting that the people who've mentored me here or helped me a lot - people like Quentin Tarantino - have all been Caucasian.
"I realize that things are still evolving. But I wouldn't be here without that handful of people."
Weathersby would be somewhere, entertaining with an infectious spirit and making things better with a team approach. Some people were born to fly high.