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.
“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.
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.