NORMAN — Every athlete wants to finish their careers on their own terms. Whether it’s high school, college or the pros, each wants to walk into the sunset after having the best season of their life.
Kayla Nowak is no different. The Oklahoma gymnast had planned on her senior season with the Sooners being the crowning moment of a gymnastics career.
However, a freak accident before the season even began kept Nowak from having that dream walk-off. But in the process, the Algonquin, Ill. native may have learned just how strong she has become.
“Kayla obviously has a huge heart,” OU coach K.J. Kindler said. “What happened to her this year was unexpected, kind of heart-wrenching to be honest with you. She has stuck in there with us. Hasn’t missed a beat. She has been a huge support system for these guys. She has been an inspiration for our whole team this season.”
No. 2 Oklahoma (17-0) will host its final meet of the season at 2:30 p.m. when it takes on No. 9 Stanford and North Carolina at Lloyd Noble Center.
It’s also Senior Day and Nowak will be one of the three who will be honored. What was already going to be an emotional day is going to be even more so for Nowak as she flashes back to Dec. 11 when a simple practice session went horribly wrong.
“It was finals week and I was doing a bar routine,” Nowak said. “I just kind of went early on a release and hit my feet on the bar. It kind of counter-rotated me and I landed on the upper part of my back and my feet went over my head. I would have been fine if I had landed completely flat on my back, but it was just at the wrong angle. Just kind of got unlucky in how I fell.”
Nowak couldn’t move and had to be rushed to the hospital. She was diagnosed with a compression fracture to her spine and suffered a dislocation, tearing all of the ligaments between the vertebrae and spinal cord. At the time she didn’t know it, but her gymnastics career was over.
“When it initially happened, I had feelings in my leg, not a lot of tingling,” Nowak said. “I could wiggle my toes, so that made me feel better. I really didn’t know what was happening. It was happening really fast, going in for tests then going right in for surgery. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people. I was just in more pain, just wanted them to put me to sleep. I just wanted to get it over with.”
Nowak had bone taken from her pelvis and the surgeons fused the bone to ligaments. She now also has four screws holding it all in place, which will stay with her forever.
“No parent wants to get that phone call,” Nowak said. “Whether you are 5 or 21. My parents flew down that night and by the time I literally got wheeled out of surgery and was awake for like 15 minutes before they were walking in the hospital. It seemed like it was harder for them to kind of accept everything. But they were really supportive. I was in the hospital for like a week and they were sleeping on fold-out couches and never left my side.”
One of the first questions Nowak asked after surgery was if she would still be able to join the team for the season opener in Georgia. Even though she knew she couldn’t compete, she wanted to be with the team this year. No matter how emotionally painful it was for her.
“The hardest part was after the first home meet,” Nowak said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “Not really watching it but after it, and just reflecting on everything. I was really torn apart about it. I think I have been pretty good about having my moment then getting out of it pretty fast. My parents were here that weekend and they helped me. I had some teammates reach out and just appreciate that I’m still around.”
What has also helped is seeing the success and growth of the program she has contributed to building. The undefeated Sooners have a legitimate chance to win their first ever national championship.
It’s the kind of ending Nowak has wanted since she first arrived. If Oklahoma wins, it will still mean the world to her.
“It has been a journey since day one,” Nowak said. “Watching how everything has transformed. Being a part of that first team that went to Super Six. Not really even understanding what that meant until later on. Watching the team, the program, the coaches and myself just transform and mature. Obviously this whole thing stinks really bad. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned a lot from everything.”
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