High School Sports

High school gymnast returns to competition after broken back

Lydia Davis of Corinth Holders High competes in the floor exercise event during the North Carolina High School State Gymnastics Championships in Raleigh January 30, 2015.
Lydia Davis of Corinth Holders High competes in the floor exercise event during the North Carolina High School State Gymnastics Championships in Raleigh January 30, 2015. newsobserver.com

Lydia Davis struggled during warmups at the Atlantis Crown Invitational gymnastic competition Dec. 13, 2013, in the Bahamas. She was sore and stiff, and no amount of stretching seemed to help.

Reluctantly, she withdrew from the competition.

Had Davis competed, she might not be walking today, let alone competing again in top form.

The Corinth Holders sophomore, who had won the 2013 state high school all-around gymnastics title as a freshman, had fallen during practice on the bars the day before the Bahamas competition. She thought she had cracked a rib or badly bruised her back.

“It hurt, but not that bad. More stiff and sore than actually hurting,” she said recently.

But she had not bruised her back. She had broken it, crushing two vertebrae, leaving her spine dangerously out of alignment and unstable.

“She was up walking around,” said her father, Chris Davis. “She went scuba diving. She was sore. She was stiff. But we had no suspicions. It is scary to think what might have happened.”

Lydia Davis returned to school that Monday and went to the doctor a day later. Her doctor suspected a rib problem but ordered an X-ray.

The doctor called Lynn Davis, Lydia’s mom, into the hall to view the X-ray on a light screen and pointed to a vivid image of her broken back. Lynn remembers him saying, “We have a problem.”

The break was in the middle of her back, at T10 and T11. Automobile accidents are the predominant cause of fractures in that area and paralysis is common.

USA Gymnastics officials told the family they had never heard of a gymnast suffering a similar injury.

An MRI and a CT scan confirmed the damage. A spinal specialist ordered Davis into a back brace and into bed until surgery.

“The doctor told us that what he was seeing from the tests and what he was seeing with his eyes didn’t match,” Chris Davis said. “He couldn’t believe she was up walking around.”

A terrible fall

Davis is unsure what happened during her fall. She was practicing on the bars and was attempting a release from the higher bar. Her feet hit the high bar, causing her to overshoot the low bar.

She landed on the back of her head and the top of her shoulders with her feet flying back over her head. But she had fallen many times before and had never been seriously injured.

Davis was so flexible that she could bend backward and touch her head to her hips. This time, though, the speed and power she generated was bone crushing, even though coach and spotter Gary Lee helped break the fall.

“If Gary hadn’t grabbed her,” Chris Davis said, his voice trailing off. “Well, he may have saved her life.”

Lydia Davis and her family struggled to grasp the extent of the injury.

“The doctors were blown away by the X-rays,” Lydia’s mother said. “Then we went through the X-rays, MRI, CT scan. It was three straight days of bad, the worst, information.”

On that Christmas Eve, her surgeon used a bone graft from her hip and two titanium rods held by four screws to stabilize her back.

The surgeon told her she would never be able to do gymnastics again.

For the first of several times, he said, “Be thankful. You’re walking.”

Keeping the dream

Davis had been involved in gymnastics since she was 2 years old. She enrolled at Morgan’s Gymnastics Academy in Smithfield when she was 7.

Gymnastics, and practices that grew to five days a week for five hours a day, became a big part of her life. Davis advanced to the Level 10 class, the highest level of most collegiate gymnasts. The dream of competing in college seemed close to becoming a reality.

The Bahamas tournament was going to be a milestone, her first competition at Level 10.

Then suddenly she was confined inside a back brace that went from her neck to her hips and could be removed only for showering.

The thought of never competing again was difficult.

“I really couldn’t process it,” she said.

Davis went home from the hospital on Christmas Day, a day after surgery and one day into her rehab.

She considered other sports. She became involved in student government at school for the first time, concentrated on boosting her 4.478 grade-point average and did her rehab.

But when her back brace came off in April, thoughts of returning to gymnastics reappeared.

Davis began to think maybe, eventually, she could compete. She didn’t know if she could compete at Level 10 again, but she wasn’t ready to walk away from gymnastics.

She decided to try.

Coming back

Davis started with hand stands and progressed to cartwheels. She did round-offs, a difficult but essential gymnastics move, on a specially cushioned track and later began to attempt jumps, handsprings and floor exercises.

She received her medical release in October. Her doctors told her that if she played football, there would be no qualms about her returning to play, but gymnastics, with its twisting and bending, was unknown territory. Nevertheless, she began to train with the hope of competing with the Corinth Holders High gymnastics team.

Fiercely competitive

Davis’ father, who is the boys’ basketball coach at Corinth Holders, said she is the most determined competitor he has ever seen.

“She’s elegant, but what sets her apart is her athletic ability and her fierce competitiveness,” said Margaret Morgan-Lee, her club coach.

She practiced with ferocity, continuing workouts on the bar after her hands were blistered and bloody. She was conquering her physical challenges, but emotional damage was just below the surface.

“I was concerned that she might have been handling it too well,” Lynn Davis said. “She had cried just a little bit, but I knew there was more there.”

Lydia Davis had remained so stoic, so composed throughout the ordeal until all the emotions came pouring out one night.

“I was at practice, and I had to leave. I had just had to leave,” Lydia Davis said. “My coach knew something was wrong.

“I had a meltdown. Tears. I have always kept things inside. I could handle things. I could work it out until I could handle it. But it had become too much.”

The fear, the pain all burst out.

The next day, Davis resolved she would not abandon her dream.

She would compete with the Corinth Holders team as planned, but she also would begin training to compete at Level 10.

“I would do that, or I wouldn’t do gymnastics at all,” she said, shaking her head. “I wanted to get back to where I was.”

Level 10

Davis competed on Level 10 for the first time on Jan. 17 in Hilton Head, S.C. Her goal, she said, was to not fall off an apparatus.

“I just want to complete my routines without falling,” she said days before the competition.

She fell twice.

Davis landed a tumbling run awkwardly, which counts as a fall, and she missed a release on the bar. She finished eighth in the all-around and was third on the beam.

“At first I was very disappointed,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, the better I felt. Most of the girls had been practicing all year. I have been back three months and practicing Level 10 for half of that.”

And yes, she included the high bar release that resulted in a broken back.

She nailed it.

Earlier this month, Davis also nailed the North Carolina high school championships in her division. She scored a perfect 10.0 on floor exercises and shared individual titles on bars and beam. She was the all-around winner.

Despite injury and heartache, rehab and uncertainty, Lydia Davis was at the top again.

D. Clay Best contributed to this story.