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Her smile is back

Crystal River graduate Rebecca Thielemann is running pain-free with an eye toward earning a college scholarship.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Rebecca Thielemann's back is arched when she runs. Her arms pump back and forth. Her stride is full.

And when a race ends, Thielemann's face offers a smile.

The change from past years is dramatic.

Running is fun again for the 2001 Crystal River graduate. Better still, for the first time in recent memory running is painless.

"It's amazing ... just amazing," said Susie Gamache, Thielemann's mother. "I'm ecstatic. I can't believe what doctors can do."

Last fall, an advanced form of scoliosis in Thielemann's back caused her to ache from head to toe while she ran, and often while doing other things. Because of the abnormal lateral curvature of her spine, Thielemann ran with a noticeable lean to her left. She was diagnosed with scoliosis four years earlier, but the situation worsened in 2001 and the pain sometimes became excruciating.

When running, Thielemann's back popped and her hips burned. Breathing was difficult. She grimaced throughout entire races.

"I cried at every meet," Gamache said.

Thielemann iced her back for hours after running, and regularly visited a local chiropractor. Sometimes her mother cracked Thielemann's back for relief from the knife-like pain.

"I remember being in so much pain after meets," Thielemann said. "It hurt so bad. I mean, really hurt. "

Doctors prescribed rest. But that hardly helped.

Making matters worse was that Thielemann balked when doctors recommended surgery in September. She wanted one final crack at earning her first trip to the state cross country meet. She talked them into putting off the procedure until December.

The pain intensified.

As the season progressed, Thielemann put herself into position to reach state. But despite running a respectable 3-mile time of 20 minutes, 46 seconds at the Class 2A, Region 2 meet in Cocoa, she placed 20th, ending her season.

Four weeks later, she was on an operating table at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

"The night before I wasn't nervous," Thielemann said. "But as soon as I went in the room and saw the anesthesiologist, that's when it hit me. I was getting really nervous and really scared, but they gave me some medicine to calm me down. I don't remember anything after that except saying goodbye to my mom."

During the operation, in which Thielemann had her spine fused and rods inserted for support, Gamache and other family members gathered in the waiting room.

"Let's just say I wore a hole in the floor," Gamache said. "It was the most nerve-wracking thing. It's something I wouldn't want to put any parent through."

Six hours after the procedure began, Thielemann's spine was fixed.

But her recovery was just beginning.

Thielemann took 3-4 steps the day after surgery, but couldn't walk normally for weeks. She missed about two months of school and was relatively inactive until July. "I wasn't allowed to lift anything over 5 pounds," Thielemann said.

She also could not run.

For some, that might not have been a big deal. But for Thielemann, the pain of being unable to run was mentally grueling, and in many ways worse than the pain she suffered before surgery.

Finally, in July, Thielemann's doctor told her she could run, but only in moderation.

"He said she could run 6-7 miles a week," Gamache said, "and no sooner did we get home and Rebecca was out the door and ready to go."

The day Thielemann was cleared, she jogged for five minutes.

"It was great," she said.

Thielemann, now a student at Central Florida Community College, has set a new goal: earn a college scholarship.

Her times at first were well behind her pace last fall, but they have steadily improved in four area races this fall. In a recent 5K in Inverness, Thielemann finished in 21:52.

"I'm just happy to see my times drop right now," Thielemann said. "I'm not looking for anything special."

Not yet.

Thielemann runs often at Crystal River with her former teammates. She is allowed to run only 15 miles a week, which has curbed her training. At December's checkup, she expects to find out if she can resume a full training schedule.

"I'm kind of nervous about that," Thielemann said. "I don't want him to say, "You can't continue.' I don't think he's going to say that, but he might not allow me to run like I want to."

If Thielemann's doctor gives her clearance to increase her mileage, she expects to see a significant drop in her times. Thanks to the help of former Citrus Road Runners president Colon Joiner, who keeps colleges posted on Thielemann's progress, Florida Southern is showing an interest.

"They're watching each race," Thielemann said.

Thielemann thinks that to have a realistic shot at a scholarship, she needs to post times below 20 minutes, something she never has done.

It could take time to get there.

Thielemann admittedly is not at her physical peak. And when she runs, her lungs bother her a bit. But her progress is cause for excitement.

"There is a little (self) doubt," Thielemann said. "I haven't run in the 19s before, but every year I've run I've been in pain. If I keep working hard, one of these days, one of these races, I'll get there. I'm pretty dedicated, but I've got to become more dedicated and get in better shape."

Regardless of how far running takes Thielemann, she already has come a long way.

"Everybody is cheering me on, even all the coaches from the other schools," Thielemann said. "It's just great. I've gotten a lot of support."

In more ways than one.

-- Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 860-7337 or

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