Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the nature of Rebecca Johnson's injury.
COLUMBIA — Two days before the first meet of the 2013 gymnastics season, Missouri gymnast Rebecca Johnson lined up at the start of the vault runway and took off.
A three-second sprint, then a jump, then a push off the vault. Johnson flew through the air, higher than usual.
The higher a gymnast flies in a vault routine, the better. Johnson called this particular practice run one of the best she’s ever done.
For a gymnast, milliseconds matter. Motions are scripted and memorized to thousandths of a second. The extra fractions of a second Johnson hung in the air disoriented her.
The closer a gymnast is to sticking a landing, the better. Johnson prepared herself to land, extending her legs. But the ground wasn’t there yet. Her legs locked before they hit the ground.
Broken tibia. Torn posterior cruciate ligament, or PCL.
At the moment of her diagnosis, Johnson, then a sophomore, had one thought.
It was an ominous start to Missouri’s first season in the Southeastern Conference, which has produced 17 national champions in the last 32 years.
Missouri’s first meet of the season was a loss at perennial powerhouse Alabama. The next week was against Florida, which would go on to win the national championship.
From the sidelines, Johnson watched as her teammate and roommate, Briana Conkle, warmed up for the floor exercise. Conkle, also a sophomore last year, went down while practicing a combination.
An ambulance took her to the hospital. Dislocated ankle.
“It was the worst feeling in the world,” said Johnson, referring to Conkle’s injury. “I actually had to go sit down. I felt like I was going to pass out watching that happen.”
Conkle could only wonder why she had to suffer such an injury. She had prepared to be an all-around gymnast after competing only on the floor and uneven bars her freshman year.
The next meet, against the Air Force Academy, another member of the sophomore class, Katelyn Trevino, attempted a double back (two consecutive backflips in the air) while warming up on the floor routine. She landed hard and awkwardly. She thought the floor was broken. A doctor’s visit later revealed she had ruptured her Achilles tendon, only a year after coming back from an ACL tear.
Three gymnasts, all sophomores, all close friends, were out for the season.
“It was like my heart breaking one time, then taking the pieces and breaking them again,” Johnson said. “They are my best friends, I didn’t even know how that happened.”
With the three on the sideline, Missouri finished 4-17.
Johnson might not have been alone on the sidelines, but having company while watching the unsuccessful season didn't make it any better.
“I was hoping to live through (Briana and Katelyn) that season,” she said. “But I wasn’t able to live through them at all because they were going through the same thing.
“It helped to have them by my side. It helps to have people understand what you are going through. But I could have done that alone. I didn’t need them to get hurt too.”
Recovering emotionally might have been as difficult as recovering physically.
Conkle said she would often call her mom and weep over the phone.
For Trevino, it was a repeat of the previous year.
“I had already come back from an ACL tear. I thought I had already passed my resiliency test,” Trevino said. “I was having a pretty big pity party about (my Achilles injury). ... It was a dark and gloomy time. I don’t think I would have been able to make it through alone.”
Trevino and Johnson would often read Bible verses in between rehab sessions. Over and over, hope was the theme.
In Conkle and Johnson’s home, nothing came easy. Getting a glass of water became a challenge. So was vacuuming, which Conkle did on one leg.
“We would look at each other and there were mixes of laughing and crying,” Johnson said. “I think that brought us closer, being in the same house and relying on each other.”
For Trevino, even walking was demanding. After eight months in a cast, the first step was the hardest.
“I was happy (to get the cast off) but sad because I lost that much muscle memory,” she said. “I had to start from stage one, the very beginning, with how to walk again.”
The trio spent months in the gym rehabilitating, where simple tasks were agonizing. In competition, jumping up and down on one foot is a given; in rehab, Conkle remembers it as a daunting task.
With time, the jumping became easier. The three were cleared to train on the uneven bars first — no jumping, no tumbling, no running required. Hard landings were strictly prohibited.
Prior to the injury, Johnson’s best and favorite event was the vault. After being resigned to swinging only during recovery, Johnson relished her time on the bars, which is now her best event.
Since transitioning to bars, Johnson has scored at or above 9.750 in every meet, the only Tiger to do so this season. Feb. 14 at the GymQuarters Invitational in St. Charles, her score of 9.850 set a new personal record and earned her the event title. Seven days later, in a meet against George Washington at the Hearnes Center, she posted a score of 9.900, taking home the event title a second time.
Conkle returned in three events — all except the vault — for her junior season. Since recovering, she has set new personal records in both the bars and the balance beam and is one of only three Missouri gymnasts to have competed on the floor in every meet this year.
After appearing in three events in each of the first two meets of the year, Trevino’s junior season took a turn when a meniscus tear was discovered less than a month into the regular season. She said that having gone through the rigors of a serious injury twice before prepared her for this setback, which she hopes to recover from in time for Missouri’s meet at LSU on Friday.
“The very first thing that came out of my mind was, ‘This is not going to take away your joy,’” she said. “It wasn’t heartbreaking for me.”
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