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    Hurt gymnast bounces back

    The eighth-grader endures surgery and months of rehabilitation, but her passion for the sport fuels her return.

    By JILLIAN BANDES
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002


    PALM HARBOR -- At first, nobody worried much when Alyssa Wright landed flat-footed during a big gymnastics meet at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg last year.

    Alyssa, a state champion from Palm Harbor, had felt dizzy in the air during her dismount from the uneven bars and felt some pain. But she expected to "have my knee popped right back in."

    Her mother, Susan Wright, also thought the injury was nothing serious.

    "I saw her go down from the bleachers, and I just said, "Oh, that's too bad,' because it had been a nice bar routine," Mrs. Wright said. "I thought it wasn't a big deal."

    Alyssa walked around for several minutes. Then the real pain set in. An ambulance took her from the Gasparilla Classic Invitational to the emergency room at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

    "The X-ray came back, and I got really scared," Alyssa said. "The bone wasn't even lined up."

    Alyssa, now an eighth-grader at Carwise Middle School, had broken her right femur and suffered nerve damage, paralyzing the front of her right foot. It would take two months for her to walk without crutches and six months of excruciating rehabilitation to recover.

    It could have been a career-ending injury, but Alyssa, 13, had other plans.

    "Being out for that long, it made me realize how much I love the sport and love my friends there," she said.

    After three hours of surgery and two nights in the hospital, she came home with a full leg cast that kept her out of school for two months. Doctors also told her to stay out of gymnastics or any kind of athletic activity for at least six months.

    To Alyssa, who won the state championship on the balance beam for 12-year-olds during 2000, the doctor's order went against her competitive grain. Her championship had come in Level 8 gymnastics. Level 10 is collegiate-caliber competition.

    "It was kind of the moment of truth," Mrs. Wright said. "It would have given her a good excuse to quit gymnastics altogether, now that she was getting older and moving on to the next level."

    But Alyssa's passion for her sport only grew while she rehabilitated at home. She has been involved in gymnastics for just five years, a comparatively short time for young gymnasts. She quickly passed through the lower levels at LaFleur's Gymnastic Training Center in Largo and began to practice intensely at age 10.

    A typical schedule is three to four hours a day, four days a week, plus weekend competitions. Her younger sister, Jordyn, 9, trains at LaFleur's as well and has won overall state championships at levels 4, 5 and 7. (The school does not compete at level 6.)

    In addition to practice, though, Alyssa maintains straight A's at Carwise, is a member of the National Junior Honor Society and is the captain of the cheerleading squad. She also has volunteered at Highland Lakes Elementary.

    Alyssa returned to the gym last September, almost six months to the day after she suffered the injury that left her with a knee brace, crutches and thrice-weekly sessions of intense physical therapy. The paralysis had left her without full control of her right foot, so she had to relearn moves such as turns and landings on her left.

    Her floor routine, particularly sprinting and tumbling, was an ongoing source for frustration as she had trouble with balancing her right side.

    Several of her other routines had to be significantly altered. Alyssa, who is 5-foot-1 and 102 pounds, used the opportunity to add more advanced moves to her repertoire.

    Her efforts paid off after she won her first meet back, the Miami Twist Invitational on Jan. 5.

    "From the injury she had, coming back was just phenomenal," said her coach, Melody LaFleur. "Kids just don't do that. It was really amazing."

    On March 1, she took first place overall at the state meet for Level 9 in the 13-year-old age group. She then traveled to the regional meet in North Carolina on April 5, where she hoped to advance to nationals.

    Two days before she left, however, she sprained her right foot.

    "It wasn't much, but it was enough to keep her from qualifying for nationals," LaFleur said. Despite the setback, Alyssa has moved on to Level 10 and is gearing up for a round of competitions that begin in January.

    "I think I'll do pretty good; that's what I'm hoping for," she said. But after the long layoff, it was simply good to get back in the gym. "It's fun for me just to flip and be down there with my coach and my friends."

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