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Jenni Carlson: Giant leaps; no bounds for OU gymnast

by Jenni Carlson Published: March 2, 2010

was a helpless feeling.

Kelley could hardly wait to return this season.

Then, right before Thanksgiving, she was on the floor working on a new skill. She wanted to do it one last time, but when she landed, her knee went sideways.

"I felt it pop out, then pop back in,” she said.

Her ACL had snapped.

"We can do surgery,” the doctor told Kelley. "Maybe by April you might be able to do something.”

Her stomach dropped.

"Or,” the doctor said, "you could not have surgery and try to come back.”

"That’s what I’m doing,” Kelley said.

Kindler tried to slow her down, encouraging her to talk to her parents first, but there was no changing Kelley’s mind. Her parents knew it. Her coach knew it, too.

"You can’t stop Natasha,” Kelley’s mother, Peggy, told Kindler. "Whatever she wants to do, she’s gonna do it. There’s no tellin’ her no.”

Once the swelling in Kelley’s knee went down and her range of motion returned, she got back into the gym, taking baby steps with her routines and seeing what she could do. She soon realized that she could still do the same routines on the uneven bars, the balance beam and the vault that she was doing before her injury.

Less than two months after the injury, she competed on the bars and the beam in the Sooners’ season opener. She scored 9.850 on the bars, tied for the team’s best score in the event that night, and 9.800 on the beam, the team’s third-best score.

Three weeks later, she added the vault in competition and has been doing all three events since.

Because Kelley didn’t tear any other ligaments in her knee, her swelling has been minimal. The same goes for her pain. She does exercises to strengthen the muscles around her knee and compensate for the ligament that she lacks, but yet, nothing changes the fact that Kelley is doing high-level gymnastics with a torn ACL.

Her ability to do that has been critical for OU.

"Huge,” Kindler said. "The thing is, she’s so consistent. She has tons of international experience. Doing her routines doesn’t faze her.”

But her impact on her teammates goes beyond the scores that she posts.

"It’s a lesson in toughness for them,” Kindler said. "We all get caught up in ‘poor me’ sometimes.

"It’s a lot harder now for them to do that based on what she’s done.”

Kelley said, "I guess for them to see me doing it with my knee in two pieces and not really having that much of a problem with it, I think it helps them. I hope it does. I hope it helps them on the hard days ... when everything’s not quite there just to step back and see that the situation could be a lot worse.”

Truth be told, Kelley doesn’t think her situation is all that bad.

Not after last season.

"Now,” she said, "I feel I can do anything.”

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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