After a successful season of high school and club gymnastics, I was recruited by a couple of different universities. Ball State University was my best option financially and academically. I was recruited by their head coach, Mary Roth. Even though I was pretty much gigantic for a gymnast at 5’9″, Mary loved my lines, my toe point, my work ethic and most of all my fun-loving, positive attitude. I signed for an academic and athletic scholarship. It should have been the best day of my life, but I was still plagued with the feeling that it wasn’t good enough. My dream had been to go to the University of Missouri. Never mind that I had heard their coach was a zealot when it came to the weight of his gymnasts. It didn’t take me long to realize Ball State was a great fit for me.
However, I started college off on the wrong foot, literally. I had been a gymnast since I was nine years old. I was 18 at the time and had done gymnastics for half of my life. I’d been injured but never seriously. One Sunday morning, two weeks before the start of my freshman year of college, I was late for work. If I’m confessing here, and I am, if it was Sunday morning and I was supposed to work, I was going to be running late for work. This wasn’t just a rare Sunday. I was a waitress at a place called Reynold’s Restaurant. It was totally old school with diner counters and the spinning stools and speckled tile on the floor. The owners were extremely kind to me, and they had a daughter who was also a gymnast. The whole truth is that I was partying the night before. I was too drunk to drive home, so I called my sister to come pick me up instead. That morning, the keys to my car were in her purse, which was in her car, which was in the church parking lot. So while my family was at church, I was running around in my little green waitress uniform, fussing with the little beret, trying to get ready for work with a hangover. I’ve always been late and I know I used to thrive on the adrenaline rush of making it somewhere successfully when I was running late. I didn’t realize I didn’t have my car keys until I ran up to my car door. I rushed over to my neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. Eric, one of the sons, answered and I hurriedly explained that I had slept in, that my sister had my car keys and that I needed a ride to work. He agreed to take me and I asked him to hold on while I got something from home before we left.
Between our houses, there was a small embankment that sloped downwards from their driveway to ours. As I was sprinting back to my house in my Army green, ugly mini-dress of a uniform, I slipped on the grass and fell. I was sliding down towards our driveway, tugging at my uniform to keep my butt from completely falling out of it. I finally hit the cement of my driveway, which stopped me from sliding, but the momentum grated my ankle against the ground. I heard this awful crack and started to scream for my neighbor to call an ambulance. I remember lying there thinking, “Oh my god, if it isn’t broken and I go into the ambulance, my parents are going to kill me.” So I started shouting that he should un-call the ambulance. I then went to take off my shoe and the bone moved in my sock. There was no mistaking it, it was broken. So I had surgery three or four hours later for a compound fracture, having ripped the outside of my bone and tearing a deltoid ligament, the largest ligament in the human body. They implanted five screws and placed me in a cast.
Two days later I had a follow up appointment. The surgeon examined his handiwork and told me he was putting me in a hip cast for the next 8 weeks. Even though I had just turned 18 one month earlier and was basically lying in a self-pity pile I looked straight into the eyes of this prominent surgeon in our town yelled “YOU ARE NOT PUTTING ME IN A HIP CAST! I WILL NOT DO IT! FIND SOMETHING ELSE. YOU’RE NOT DOING THAT TO ME!” I explained that if he put me in a hip cast I’d be ruined. I would have to rehab both my ankle and my knee because he was immobilizing that too. It would be too much to overcome and I had to do gymnastics. It was paying for my school. I remember not liking him very much at all even though he did a great job on my surgery. Surprisingly, he agreed to put me in a removable brace that had both an ankle and a knee hinge. I liked him a little better after that. I could remove the brace and keep my leg as strong and flexible as possible. That was one of the first lessons I had in being your own advocate for your health. Yes, doctors are amazing. They are very intelligent. However, they are still people and don’t know everything. This made all the difference in the world. I was able to take off the brace and do rehab.
A couple of days after my surgery when I was off most of my pain medicine, I had to call Mary Roth and explain to her what happened. She told me that my scholarship was in jeopardy and she didn’t know if I’d be able to keep it and start Ball State at all. I said good-bye, hung up the phone and I went ape-shit crazy. I started to cry hysterically, visions of Clinton Community College and more years at my parents house were popping in my head. “Why is God doing this to me?!” How melodramatic I was! When I pulled it together about 20 minutes later, I made a call to my high school coach, who told me that it was impossible for Ball State to take my scholarship away for an injury. I calmed down a bit and Mary called me back to tell me she was going to honor my scholarship.
My parents dropped me off in Muncie, Indiana, exactly two weeks from the date of my injury and surgery. They spent a couple of days decorating my room, helping me unpack and get settled. I remember them saying good bye and my Dad crying and choking up through tears, “Take care of that leg.” After they left, I shut the door to my dorm room and felt a little guilty. I cried a little when they left, but all in all I was overjoyed that I was finally at college. I had a surge of energy and was completely excited to be there even if I was on crutches. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I attended classes like any other incoming freshmen but was luckily carted around by the campus police. The Ball State policy was for the campus police to take injured students to class if they were too hurt to walk. I went to class and practice. I couldn’t do anything in gymnastics specifically, but I worked with the Ball State Physical Therapist, Neal Hazen, in the training room as much as I could. I did whatever he told me to do. He really worked on me a lot. He would rub my ankle until I would almost throw up from agony. He was trying to get rid of the scar tissue so that I would retain mobility in that ankle. Neal was the main reason I was able to get back into gymnastics. I’m always surprised when I work with clients for physical therapy because it’s always just a few short sessions, maybe eight at most. I was in rehabilitating every day and training for four whole hours for months. I would get on this Airdyne bike and they would hoist one foot on a chair while I pedaled with the other. I rode that thing for forty five minutes straight.
The training room was just four concrete walls painted white. I was pretty bored, but I hated going into the gymnastics gym. I’d be stuck watching my teammates learn new awesome skills like double full twists and double backs and I would just be sitting around longing to join them. I hated it that they were getting better while I was not improving in gymnastics at all. My ankle did get better every day and I was getting stronger.
I have to admit that the training room was actually a blast. I don’t mean the torturous rehab of it all but definitely the camaraderie of the injured athletes. It didn’t hurt that there were many good looking, athletic men that were injured either. I was already very social but the training room made me even more so. I met hundreds of male and female athletes that year. One thing all athletes have in common is that we all get hurt at one point or another. Even the upperclassmen would come to me to find out where the parties were that weekend. I always knew what was going on and what was going on was fun. I still hold the opinion that the best place to grow up is not the best place to live your life. I mean, I started in Clinton, Iowa. When it comes to things to do, you couldn’t get much worse. There we learned how to make our own fun. Now that I was in the big city of Muncie, Indiana, and I swear to God I thought it was a big city then, I felt like I was in the Mecca of activity!
I was sequestered to the packed house training room. I guess that was another example of making the best of it. I had to be in the training room anyway so I might as well make it fun. When I got more mobility, I moved to the weight room and worked out in there up to two hours per day. I loved the weight room too. By today’s standards that place was a complete dump. It was in an enclosed basement, concrete room that was humid and sweaty. The athletes didn’t have their own separate weight room then so I was in there with everyday fitness enthusiasts and regular students. One day, some goofy guy with a “Let’s Get Physical” headband on brought in a boom box. He played the entire Rocky cassette soundtrack. My smart-alec bodybuilder friends were shouting, “Go Adrienne!” before their sets of bench and chin-ups. We pulled off a lot of buffoonery in that sweat box.
Even though I was working hard in the training room, and then in the weight room, (albeit having fun and laughing a lot too) Mary would sometimes hassle me that I would never be at practice. She wanted me to sit around and support my teammates. She would say, “I never know where you are all practice.” We would practice every day from two to six and I was trying to spend those four hours training. I figured rehabilitating my ankle was ultimately the best way to support my teammates. I had to all but beg her not to make me sit and watch the practices. That would have been torture.
After eight weeks, I had my second surgery and they removed the longest pin that went though both my tibia and fibula bones. I was on crutches for another ten days after the surgery before I could start really working out again. After the pin was taken out, I could do pull ups on bars. In gymnastics, if your leg is broken, you’re still expected to use everything else that works. This mentality has stayed with me throughout my years as a personal trainer and Pilates instructor. If my clients ever complain that their wrist is in pain, I say, “Well, your legs work just fine, so you’re going to work those out today.” But it helped me to maintain the condition of my body. If I hadn’t kept exercising, I would not have been able to jump right back into the swing of things.
When I came back from Christmas break and our season began in January, I was ready to compete. I was still having pain, however. I had been doing gymnastics since that November and the doctor told me I had Achilles tendinitis in my ankle. Even though I was competing, I was really sticking to beam and definitely staying away from vaulting, or anything that required me to run and slam down on my feet. Since I was never very good at bars, I competed in beam as a freshman for Ball State. But even after the season was over, I was still in pain. I remember that was around the same time Jennifer Sey broke her femur in half doing a reverse Hecht
on bars. Six months later, she came back and won the national championship. I had a teammate tell me that if Jennifer could recover after only six months, then so could I. In Jennifer’s 2008 book, she explained that despite breaking her femur, her doctors released her prematurely. She may have won the championship, but she was still very much injured. At the time, however, I got down on myself for not regaining my strength. After eight months, I was still struggling with my ankle and the thought of Jennifer winning a national championship after a much more serious injury was demoralizing.
In the spring of my freshman year, I was also dating this good looking Senior who was a really accomplished tennis player. He had blond hair, pretty blue eyes and had skin so tan he looked like the quintessential California boy even though he was from Illinois- Normal, Illinois, in fact. He endured a moped accident when he was 16 and completely crushed his leg. It was still indented and scarred in places where his shin had been bashed in. He had a scar that snaked from his knee all the way down to his ankle. It only happened two years earlier, but he was still able to get an athletic scholarship for tennis to Ball State. He was a MAC champion a few times over in doubles. I hung out with him and he told me that his leg never hurt him. But I’ve often attributed that to the fact that he was kind of a space cadet. He was always happy, which I’m sure had to do with the fact that he was completely gorgeous and had girls falling for him all over the place. He was just one of those people that could derive joy from just looking at the birds, or basking in the sunshine. He was just a really sweet and happy person. But it was still discouraging to me when he told me his leg never hurt and my Achilles wouldn’t stop hurting.
I competed and I finished out the season, but the main issue was that I had difficulty walking, so it obviously would hurt to run, jump and land on my ankle. I went back to Iowa that summer and made an appointment at the University of Iowa hospital to get it checked out. They confirmed that I had Achilles tendinitis and told me to ice it, rest it and don’t do any impact activities. I wasn’t even allowed to jog lightly, let alone do explosive gymnastics moves. I continued to exercise, but I was really burnt out from gymnastics. Most of my teammates had gotten hurt that year and, overall, our team didn’t do very well. Everyone complained about their injuries incessantly, so being hurt was always on my mind. Because I needed the exercise, but was limited in what I could do, I decided I would finally learn how to swim laps. Up until then, I never knew how to swim a single lap in a regulation sized pool. I could swim to save my own life and knew how to tread water, but I could never swim a single lap straight without taking a break. I went to the four-foot deep lap pool at the Clinton Municipal Pool and began one day, swimming a half a lap, then walking the rest. Then, I would begin the next lap. I would swim and walk as much as I needed to fill up 30 minutes. A couple weeks later I would swim 3/4 of a lap, then walk the rest. After a few weeks of that I was able to swim an entire lap and just continued like that until I could swim for up to an hour straight. I would ask anyone around that looked like they knew what they were doing if I was doing a certain stroke right, or I’d ask them to see how I was breathing, and I’d pick up pointers from the random people at the pool. I’m sure my technique was terrible but swimming made me strong. I really loved being in the water and the ability to work hard without pounding my body. It also taught me that one can always exercise no matter what injuries they’ve sustained. Having Achilles tendinitis was no excuse to be lazy and de-conditioned.