My season continued to be strong and consistent. I was always a tough competitor, even against the more experienced level 10s. I continued to complete the recruiting questionnaires that were sent to me, and kept "earn a college scholarship" at the top of my priority list. My performances were getting me closer and closer to reaching this goal, and with every meet I could feel myself getting more and more excited for my future.
As if life was waiting for the perfect time to change the future I was planning, emotional distress number two happened.
My back had been starting to ache shortly after the season began. It hurt mostly to bend forward, but not enough to complain to anyone but my parents. My mom had me taking medicine for it before practices. She continued to ask me if I wanted to get it looked at. Although it hurt, it wasn't enough to stop me from competing. I didn't want to know if anything was wrong. It was gradually getting worse, but I wasn't going to let it ruin the season that I was having. Ignorance was bliss.
It was a typical practice day at Twistars. We were training hard with two weeks before the Regional Competition. I knew I needed to qualify to Nationals if I had any hope of committing to a college the following year. John was coaching every deduction out of our routines. Practices were brutal and everyone was on edge.
A teammate of mine decided that this was the day she was going to tick John off with disrespect. She was falling on every routine and clearly had given up on completing the assignment for bars. She spent an extra long time in the chalk bucket just to irritate John more. She wouldn't look at him when he was giving her corrections and was ignoring John's threats to send her home.
John lost it.
"Everyone to the floor! We're gonna run."
And so we ran. For a long time. The girl who was to blame for this ran with such a disrespectful glare it even ticked me off. My body hurt so much; my muscles were so tired. My already aching back was getting stiffer. I was going to be extremely sore for the 8 a.m. practice we had the next morning.
As I predicted, I woke up in so much pain. I slathered Icy Hot on my body and resented the girl who was the reason behind the stiffness. I hoped she knew how mad the team was at her. I hoped she felt bad.
Knowing her, she probably didn't even care.
I started on beam that morning. Getting myself through the running warm-up was nearly impossible, and here I was about to do five beam routines. I looked at the line on the floor that I usually warmed up my skills on. I thought to myself, "If I don't warm up my skills on the floor, that's a few fewer times I have to move my stiff and sore body."
My life's biggest mistake. I wish with every ounce of my body I had just warmed up my skills on that stupid line.
I hopped on the beam to begin routine one. My body was so sore. I moved through the choreography and prepared for my first skill: a back tuck into a straddle jump full. My arms swung down below my body and I bent forward to create momentum for my flight.
I felt my lower back crack loudly as I bent forward. The muscles around my spine were so tight they felt like they had snapped me in half. I lost my breath.
My muscle memory took over and continued through the motions of the back tuck. My body flew up like it usually did for the skill, and my back cracked again in the air. It all happened so fast, but felt like it was in slow motion. I was upside down in the air above the beam. I knew my back was broken, but I still had to land. My feet hit the beam first, then my hands reached forward to grab it as I landed short. I crumpled to the ground below the beam. I let my body fall six feet into a heap on the mat, and my spine cracked and shifted one last time. I couldn't breathe.
John was at my side in seconds. I couldn't move; I couldn't stand up. He picked me up and I cried in pain. He hadn't seen me cry since my very first practice with him. He carried me to the floor; my teammate had already made a bag of ice.
My memory has since blocked out what happened after that moment.
The next thing I remember doing was driving to Larry's office at Michigan State. I remember sitting there while he tried to pinpoint the areas that were tender to the touch. I remember him "mmming" every time I said it hurt. He knew exactly what was wrong. He looked at me and said, "Do you want to go to Nationals?" I, of course, answered, "Yes." He then said, "Then we will wait until Nationals is over to get an MRI." He knew what an MRI would show, and he knew it would keep me from competing. I also knew what it would show. I was in denial that this was how my season was going to end. I refused to accept my injury and I ignored my pain. My parents trusted Larry's words and believed it when he said I was not putting myself in more danger if I kept training, that I would only be challenging my pain tolerance. My parents hated the idea of pushing through what was clearly a serious injury. I am so stubborn, and my parents knew they couldn't stop me.
Once I set my mind to something, nobody can stop me.
John knew I was hurting, and he also knew I wasn't going to stop training. He recognized the importance of this season from a college scholarship perspective, and he was not going to stand in the way of my finishing the way I wanted to. He also trusted Larry. He forced me to take a few days off of practice, and then let me come back to prepare for Regionals.
Honestly, my training was a medicated and adrenaline-filled blur. I was in an indescribable amount of pain, but it hurt more to think about taking time off to heal at this point in my season.
Larry volunteered to work with me again to get me through the end of season. In fact, he told me that the only way that I would finish the season was if I continued to work with him only, that every other doctor would force me to stop. I went into his room like I had for my hamstring injury, and he gave me the same talk about tight muscles in my groin area having effects on the pain around it. He told me I would again need his "internal manipulations" for my back injury. I remember thinking that it was weird. What did my muscles that low have to do with my injury in my spine?
But like every other girl, I trusted him and his treatments.
Again I dreaded appointments with Larry because I knew what they entailed. I started thinking about future sessions, and my fear of the discomfort grew with every visit. I knew this injury was bad and was going to take a lot of time off and rehab — a lot of sessions with Larry. I dreaded how the next few months would make my body feel discomfort beyond the shattered spine.
He told me I would again need his ‘internal manipulations’ for my back injury. I remember thinking that it was weird. What did my muscles that low have to do with my injury in my spine?
John reduced my numbers tremendously in practice. He wouldn't let me do a single floor routine, and he barely let me vault. He saw one good turn and made me get off the event. He had me visualizing routines thousands of times. He told me to do walk-through routines without the skills. He asked me to picture the sounds, smells, and feelings of the arena. He had me solidifying my cue words. He convinced me of the power of mental preparation. He told me that four mental routines is the equivalent to one physical routine with the way our brain stimulates the nerves during visualizations.
But I hated how unprepared I felt for a meet so important to my future. I walked into Regionals having yet to do a full floor routine because John hadn't let me. I had shooting pain down my legs that made every twist and turn extra excruciating. I saw Larry before the meet began. (Of course, he had volunteered to work the event as the trainer.) He threw some kinesio tape across my back, over my butt, and down my legs. He knew my back was fractured, but he wasn't about to upset one of his regular visitors by forcing me to stop and heal.
I was in my own world for Regionals. I ignored everyone. I focused on my one goal of getting to Nationals and I did the bare minimum. I started on vault. I went over the horse for warm-up twice compared to my usual four or five times. I saluted the judge and completed my vault. I landed on my feet and that was good enough for John. He scratched me from competing my second vault.
Bars and beam were nothing above average. I didn't fall, and that met John's lowered expectations for me. I started to look around at the other gymnasts competing. I stared at vault and watched a girl stumble out of her landing. I looked over to bars and saw another gymnast cast over on a handstand.
I remember thinking, "Why is everybody falling?"
John came back to where I was waiting for my turn to start warming up for floor. He said, "Rachel, all you have to do to make it to Nationals is not fall in this routine. You need to fight to stay up." It seemed like everyone was having an off day, if what I was doing was good enough to qualify.
What John told me would have been comforting if it were anything but floor left. I hadn't landed a full routine on the event in almost three weeks. My legs were shooting with pain and my back felt like it was bruising itself with how hard it was throbbing. I looked at my parents in the crowd, and they looked so nervous. My mom smiled and my dad put his hands together to form a heart in front of his chest. They hated seeing me in pain, but they never stopped supporting me. They reminded me how loved I was no matter what happened on this last event.
I warmed up the bare minimum as I could feel my medication wearing off. I felt my back start to seize and all of my ribs shift out of place to adjust to the tightened muscles that were trying to protect my fracture. Everyone knows what a rib out of place feels like, so you can imagine how all of them shifting incorrectly feels.
It was my turn next. "Just stay standing," I kept telling myself. "Two more minutes of pain, and then you're done." My mental toughness was strengthening by the second. I forced myself to ignore the pain, and my mind let me. My adrenaline surged through my spine and numbed it. I saluted, and my music began.
I stood in the corner to begin my first tumbling pass. Deep breath. My head started streaming through my cue words. "Push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, flip, flip, spot, stick." My body listened and performed what I had been visualizing hundreds of times. One pass down, two to go.
I pushed off the ground into my switch leap, and my feet landed together to rebound into my jump. "Ouch!" I screamed in my head as my rebound was slightly crooked and shot pain up through my spine and down my legs.
"Refocus, Rachel." My thoughts scolded me for thinking about my pain.
I stood in the corner and took a deep breath before my second pass. "Push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, twist hard, punch, flip, spot, stick." My two-and-a-half-punch front tuck put me on my feet again. Two passes down, one to go. I was almost done; I could feel it. One pass left. It would all be over in fifteen seconds. I got to the corner for my final pass and took one last deep breath.
"Run, push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, flip, flip, spot, stick."
The landing of my last pass shot lightning bolts of pain throughout my entire body. My eyes started to water. I disregarded my practiced choreography that required me to do a few more movements around the floor and instead stayed planted where I landed, moving just my arms. It looked terrible, but I was done. I had qualified to Nationals. John was right next to me when I got off the mat and gave me a hug.
"Good job, sweetheart."
I looked to my parents again in the crowd. Mom smiled, and dad shot me two thumbs up. I could tell part of them hated that I had one more meet, that they would have to watch me push through my pain for two more weeks.
Part of me hated it, too.
While I was seeing Larry after the meet, I saw the other gymnasts who had qualified for Nationals go into a large room and come out with both arms filled with new gear to wear to Nationals. Bags filled with new sweatpants, sweatshirts, blankets, sunglasses, beach towels, and raincoats, all completely decked out in our region's logo and colors. This was so much more than what we had gotten in level 9. When I got to the room after "treatment," I realized that it was even more overwhelming than I had imagined. Twenty volunteers stood behind huge tables packed full of what we were about to be given. They sized us and threw things into our arms until they were full. They sized us for our beautiful National leos.