No chalk. No grips. Calloused hands. Bars close together. Practice, 1985. It’s time for a routine.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out, directly into my cupped hands. If I make them moist, I won’t slip off the bars during my routine. It’s my turn. My friends on bars with me are watching, cheering me on. My coach is waiting, shouting out an encouraging phrase. Time to go.
Kip, front hip, squat on … long hang kip, front hip circle, cast, free hip, layout fly away dismount … P E E L … C R A S H !
Breathing into my hands didn’t work this time. I slipped off early on my dismount, landing on the back of my neck with my legs over my head.
Pain explosion. I’m not sure where I am. I roll over onto my left side, starting to cry quietly. It’s hard to hear what’s happening around me. I lay on my side on the mat under the bars for awhile, trying to process what has happened. My coach is talking to me softly, trying to determine if I am ok to move. Did I hurt my back, or worse, break my neck?
Serious neck and back injuries seem unlikely as I did move my entire body just a moment ago when I rolled to my side. But then, where is this intense pain coming from? After calming down, I am able to get up and move around.
My group of gymnasts moves to balance beam. I am still in pain so I work on dance moves on the low beam, waiting for my mom to pick me up from practice. Full turn, cringe, pain. Full turn, cringe, pain … Oh, thank heavens, there’s my mom …
The Next Day
I got lucky yesterday. I missed out on neck and back injuries but after x-rays, the doctor informs me that I’ve broken my sternum. He says something like, “Quite a unique injury. Not many people break their sternums on a daily basis. Sternums break in serious car accidents and during CPR for a heart attack.” No gymnastics, or other sports, for a few months to let the injury heal.
Two Weeks Later
I forget that I have a very serious injury for a moment. I try to use my arms to lift myself backwards onto a raised platform to sit. S N A P ! Another pain explosion. I start to cry which makes me breath harder. The pain becomes more intense with the breathing. A vicious circle begins … deep breath … more pain … crying … deep breath … more pain … crying
Ambulance ride, panicked parents, serious pain. Now my sternum has been dislocated. I need surgery to wire it together. Now healing will take even longer.
Six Months Later
Back in gymnastics. And also springboard diving and soccer in the summer. I’m ok, thanks to all the doctors and nurses, my parents and family, my coaches, my teachers, my friends, and everyone who helped me get better.
30 Years Later
I will never forget the pain from the injury. I will always have a large, foot-long scar from my sternum surgery. But, I’m a stronger person because of that scar.