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A University of Oklahoma gymnast's rise from a broken body to an unbreakable spirit

COMMENTARY — When a move she's done almost daily since the eighth grade went horribly wrong, Kayla Nowak's OU gymnastics career ended. Her story was just beginning.
by Jenni Carlson Published: April 3, 2013

“He said for every one he sees go my way, he sees 80 go the other way,” Nowak said. “He put it in perspective.”

Sitting inside the Sooners' practice facility next to the uneven bars where she fell, she paused as tears welled in her eyes.

“Made me feel really lucky.”

What the surgeon told her has framed her outlook every day since.

She needed a wheelchair or walker to get around. She wore a back brace. For a month she couldn't remove it even to shower. She went from an All-American preparing for a great senior season to someone who couldn't do a cartwheel.

But even in the earliest days after her injury, she wasn't angry. Not at her plight. Not at her sport.

Less than a month after her injury, Nowak begged her doctor to clear her to fly with the team to Georgia for the season-opening meet.

“I have to go,” she told the doctor.

And she was there, just like she's been for every meet this season.

Look for the blonde when the Sooners take the floor Saturday night at regionals, and she'll be cheering her teammates or chalking the bars or high-fiving her coaches.

“We probably don't realize how hard it is for her to watch because she handles it so well,” Kindler said.

Being around her teammates hasn't always been easy for Nowak. They are doing the things she expected to be doing. That has led to some tears and even a meltdown after the team's first home meet of the season.

Still, Nowak knows that being away from the team and the sport would have been even worse.

“I knew that I wasn't ready to just leave it,” Nowak said. “Regardless if I was competing or not, I knew I was still a part of it.”

What happened last December ended Nowak's career and changed her life, but she refuses to be bitter. She chooses instead to feel lucky and be positive.

That horrendous fall from the uneven bars injured her back, but she refused to let it crush her spirit.

by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at, follow her at or view her personality page at


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


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