Kayla Nowak did the move on the uneven bars almost every day since eighth grade. The Oklahoma gymnast would release from the higher of the two bars, her legs in a straddle position, catch the bar on the other side and continue swinging.
But one day in December, she released too soon.
Her heels caught the bar and sent her flying. She landed on the upper part of her back, then her momentum carried her legs over her head and bent her awkwardly.
Not everyone in the practice gym saw the fall, but everyone heard it.
Less than four months have passed since one of the best gymnasts on one of the country's best teams lay sprawled on the mat eight feet below the bar. To understand how she went from a broken body teetering on the edge of disaster to becoming the unbreakable spirit of a team that hopes to win a national championship, you need to know what a surgeon found when he cut open Nowak and how it changed her outlook.
It's the reason she'll be alongside her Sooner teammates Saturday during the NCAA regional at the Lloyd Noble Center.
“I got the best of the worst situation,” Nowak said.
Hers was an injury so severe that she was in danger of paralysis.
The coaches and the team trainer ran to her side as soon as they heard her hit the mat. Nowak struggled to breathe and turned blue. Once she finally caught her breath after about 30 seconds, the trainer started trying to assess what might be wrong. Nowak had pain in her sides and her hips, so everyone thought she might have injured her pelvis or even done something to her ribs.
“I haven't had an athlete fall and be in that much pain ever,” Sooner coach K.J. Kindler said.
Because Nowak was able to sit up and move her extremities no one thought there was any danger of neurological damage.
X-rays, though, indicated Nowak fractured her T-12 vertebrae and dislocated her T-11 vertebrae in her lower back.
That wasn't all.
When a surgeon cut open her back a few hours after the accident, he could see part of her spinal cord. The four layers of ligaments that were supposed to be covering it were gone, ripped apart by her fall.
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Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
NCAA WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS REGIONAL
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman
What: Oklahoma, ranked second in the nation, will host Stanford, Penn State, Washington, Iowa and Southern Utah. The top two teams from the six-team regional will advance to the NCAA championships.
Tickets: $12 for adults, $8 for youth (ages 3-18), $5 for college students (with ID). Tickets can be purchased by calling (405) 325-2424 or by visiting www.SoonerSports.com.