Sacramone able to keep her balance
The timing indisputably was rotten - the day before last month’s World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, nine months before the Olympics. Alicia Sacramone was doing a tumbling pass on the practice floor when her right Achilles’ tendon ruptured.
“I probably cried for a couple of hours,’’ the Winchester native related. “Then I said, ‘It happened. I can’t change it. Being upset won’t help anything.’ ’’
So she flew to North Carolina for surgery, earned a gold medal in absentia, and went to Colorado for an extended rehabilitation at the Steadman Clinic that is designed to get her ready for a return trip to the Olympics, where she won a team silver in 2008 in Beijing.
There was no doubt that Sacramone, who turns 24 next month, would continue her quest.
“There wasn’t a question of whether I wanted to come back,’’ she said by phone from Denver last week. “It was, ‘Can I be ready in time?’ ’’
So far, her recovery is ahead of schedule. Sacramone is wearing a walking boot and hopes to transition to a normal shoe in a week or so. She has been doing upper-body training and riding a stationary bike on her functional leg. By February, she figures to be performing her usual routines.
If all goes well, Sacramone will be primed to retain her spot on the team at the June national championships in St. Louis and the Olympic trials in San Jose at the end of that month.
“We all are hoping for the best,’’ said team coordinator Martha Karolyi. “It looks like everything is going in a good direction. Alicia has the good attitude and the good approach and those are the important factors.’’
A torn Achilles’ is not as damaging as a blown-out knee. Courtney Kupets suffered the same injury on the same maneuver (an Arabian double front) on the eve of the 2003 World Championships and came back to win the Olympic trials and claim a team silver and an individual bronze in Athens the following summer.
“It definitely eases my mind knowing that people have recovered and been able to compete,’’ said Sacramone, who has rebounded from shoulder and knee surgery in previous years.
If anyone can bounce back, it’s Sacramone, whose nine-year career has been notable for resilience. After failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympic trials, she made the next year’s world team and won a floor gold and a vault bronze. Last year, after a post-Games sabbatical that lasted nearly two years, she came back to lead a young American team to the silver medal behind the Russians and won the vault.
“Alicia is mentally very tough,’’ said her coach, Mihai Brestyan. “She has the goal. She wants to go to the Olympics and get her medal.’’
This figures to be the toughest US team to make in five-ringed history, with four present or former world champions in the mix as well as the newly minted gold medalists, led by global champion Jordyn Wieber and Alexandra Raisman, a Needham native and Sacramone’s clubmate.
“I’m going to have to be at the top of my game,’’ Sacramone acknowledged.
Except for Samantha Peszek, who is happily ensconced on the UCLA varsity, all of the Beijing veterans - all-around titlist Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Chellsie Memmel, Bridget Sloan, and Sacramone - either are still competing or planning a comeback.
“It’s very good to have the strong competition going,’’ observed Karolyi. “That will stimulate everyone to get into the best possible shape.’’
Only five spots are available this time, and unlike the last two Olympic teams, this one will be picked at the trials and not a subsequent camp.
“The selection committee will have to sit down and use the math,’’ Karolyi said.
That format not only gives Sacramone less time to prepare, it also rules out an injury waiver to camp.
“There’s a little more pressure,’’ she said. “But I prefer that.’’
One benefit of having been in world-class form when she was injured is that Sacramone won’t have to (although she’d like to) spend time upgrading her routines.
“She would not need to learn new skills,’’ said Karolyi. “The old stuff, she can get it back.’’
Even if Sacramone skips the floor exercise, which Karolyi says she may want to consider, she’s still the squad’s top vaulter and one of its best performers on balance beam. And as the team’s grande dame, her leadership value was established years ago.
“That’s definitely important to me,’’ said Sacramone. “I’ve watched them grow up. We’ve been through so much together. In hard times, they’re calling me.’’
In 2003 she was the kid, the youngest member of the national team. By 2007 she was the big sister, rallying her teammates before the final event at the World Championships in Germany, then locking up the gold medal with her floor routine.
“She’s nice with her teammates, incredibly supportive,’’ said Karolyi. “Behind the scenes, doing her little-girl talk so they feel good about themselves.’’
That role figured to be even more important this year with a squad heavy on global rookies who were competing with an Olympic team berth on the line.
“She never was so ready as this time,’’ said Brestyan. “I told her, ‘Now you are in the best shape of your life, you get injured from nothing.’ ’’
One routine sprint across the floor was all it took to put Sacramone under the knife again.
“Everybody was shocked at that moment,’’ said Brestyan. “But Alicia was tough enough to maintain her composure. She was very, very positive. She encouraged the kids to keep going.’’
Sacramone delivered her pep talk from the hospital in Charlotte by video chat.
“I still was drugged up,’’ she said. “So I’m pretty sure it was comical for them.’’
Raisman stepped up as team leader and the Americans outpointed the Russians to win their third title in the last five global meets.
“Even with no experience, they were fine,’’ said Karolyi.
Though she hadn’t competed, Sacramone still earned gold as a team member, giving her 10 career world medals, most ever by a US gymnast. Had she won that gold in Beijing, she might have called it a career three years ago.
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have come back,’’ said Sacramone, whose untimely slips on beam and floor proved costly in the team competition, as the US finished second to China. “It was a blessing in disguise.’’
What she proved to herself and everyone else last year was that she could shake the dust off the leotard and still compete with the high schoolers. This time, Sacramone has to play “Beat The Clock’’ without putting herself out of commission.
“If I hurt it again, it’ll affect me for the rest of my life, not just for gymnastics,’’ she said.
If you do gymnastics at the planetary level long enough, you eventually end up on the surgeon’s table, and if you’re unlucky, it happens when the Olympics are on the horizon. Sacramone allowed herself a few tears, then focused on the calendar.
“She surprised me how easy she passed over that,’’ said Brestyan. “The injury happened. It is what it is. I have to keep myself up.
“Her mind is very, very clear. Doesn’t matter what, she’ll get there.’’
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.