NORMAN — Natasha Kelley flips and twists and cartwheels her way down the balance beam. She does it with ease. She does it with grace. She does it with a completely torn ACL, too.
The Oklahoma gymnast is competing despite the most important stabilizing ligament in her right knee being torn in two. She suffered the injury less than two months before this season began, but she decided to forgo surgery and continue gymnastics with an injury that derails most athletes. "It’s extremely rare,” Sooner coach K.J. Kindler said of an NCAA gymnast competing with an ACL injury. "I don’t know anyone else in NCAA gymnastics right now who’s doing it. Certainly, people have done it before, but it’s very rare.” Even more rare? Having a severed ACL but still being one of the best gymnasts in the country. Kelley ranks in the top 25 nationally on the balance beam and the uneven bars. Watch her leaping and landing, and if wasn’t for her knee brace, you wouldn’t even know anything was wrong. "If I sat back and thought about somebody competing without an ACL, I’d probably be like, ‘Oh, that’s not possible,’” Kelley said. "But ... I’ve always been pretty good with pain. "Now, it doesn’t even seem like it’s torn. It doesn’t seem like as much of a big deal to me because it seems like it’s normal.” It’s not. In a season when OU is ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history and considered a contender for a national championship, the Sooners need look no further than Kelley for a little extra motivation. Sure, she’s doing this for herself, but she’s doing it for them, too. She wasn’t about to miss another season with them. Kelley came to Norman from Katy, Texas, as arguably the most ballyhooed recruit in the program’s history. After winning a junior national championship in 2005, she was in line to become an Olympian like junior champ Carly Patterson had before her. Injuries derailed that dream and prompted Kelley to step away from gymnastics for a while. But when she arrived at OU two summers ago, her body was healed and her energy was replenished. About three weeks before the season, Kelley was working on some of the tumbling passes in her floor routine. She’d done her entire routine twice already that day, but when she landed on one of her extra passes, she felt a quick but sharp pain on the back of her calf. "I thought the floor had broke,” she said. As Kelley lay on the mat, she turned and expected to see the busted shard of wood that had smacked her in the back of the leg. Nothing, though, was wrong with the floor. Her Achilles’ was torn. Her season was lost. Surgery and rehabilitation sidelined Kelley for the better part of six months, and that was difficult for someone who’s been doing gymnastics since she was 3 years old. There was no gutting it out. There was no playing through the pain. There was no helping her team, either.