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volume 6 issue 1

Spring 2013


Gabby Douglas team USA's flip artist ACL injuries: what it takes to be on the mend sand volleyball sets sights on NCAA championship status




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t n e t d i s den e r esi t P e Pr en h t he sid m t rthe e President letterrofrom m eP f o letter from r fr th the President e t er m I suspect this fact will cause a reassesst ment at various levels sooner rather , and people often lIwanteetottellt me what’s o r later. I know from personal experigood and what’s f sports. I’m always than l about college ence how difficult those decisions can bad r and I’m always curious be. The problem is these competitive e happy to listen, t on their minds. Turns out demands add significant pressure to about what’s t e both college sports overall and our inpeople who follow college sports lmost dividual member colleges and universihave two big thoughts. Their university

letter from the President travel a great deal

and their team are doing it right, but everyone else is getting it wrong. The whole thing is a mess – except for their team. College sports is sort of like politics in that regard. Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that. But I agree with part of this sentiment. The vast majority of universities and teams are doing a lot right. Studentathletes are having a great athletics experience and getting a first-rate education. I always thought it was true at the various campuses I know well. But it isn’t always true. Some programs are not doing as well, and there is certainly plenty of behavior that frustrates and disappoints all of us. In some places, the problem is resources. There simply aren’t enough resources for som schools to keep up with competitive demands.

ties. The plain and simple truth is that competitiveadvantage or disadvantage – real or perceived – greatly influences nearly every decision made in college sports, including how we might try to fix our problems. Concern about competitive advantage, including the hypothetical advantage our competitors might gain, has on many occasions paralyzed our most important reform efforts. For more than a year, we have been engaged in efforts to transform how we regulate college sports, how we adjudicate violations of our rules, how we hold our teams and individuals academically accountable, and how we attend to the well-being of student-athletes. We’ve made good progress. We will do much more in the coming months. ∫

Mark Emmert NCAA President

Our Our mission mission is is to to illustrate illustrate how how good good people people do do great great things things to to support support intercollegiate intercollegiate athletics. athletics. CHAMPION



USA’s SA flip artist

USA’s SA flip artist

38 | SPRING 2013


Gabby douglas


QUIT, never


Team USA’s flip artist

Start with a talented, headstrong, African-American

gymnast from Virginia Beach. Let her watch the 2008 Olympic Games and become obsessed with the idea that a coach she sees on TV — who once competed for China but now trains Americans in Iowa — can make her a star. Move her in with a host family of Iowans to train with this coach. Throw in some teenage troubles (she is just 16, after all) and add a world championship and release moves that earn her a memorable moniker — the Flying Squirrel. If this Olympic story gets any sweeter, Disney will option the movie rights. The only thing missing is the gold medal, which would be a perfectly acceptable substitute for the princess’s crown in the fairy tale that is now Gabrielle Douglas’ life. The teen gymnast, currently living in West Des Moines, Iowa, has spent the past year and a half away from her close-knit family and become part of another one, all to secure her place on the U.S. squad. Along the way, she’s had to learn that Olympic dreams come with nightmares — in her case, a haunting self-doubt that gnaws away at the bravado built up from hours and hours of nailed routines in the gym. Unquestionably talented, Douglas secured the only guaranteed spot on the women’s squad by winning the U.S. Olympic trials. But the trip to London wasn’t always a sure thing. She lacked consistency at meets, dazzling at one and letting her nerves get the best of her at the next. Doubt is any elite athlete’s worst enemy. It’s the mind overtaking the body, thoughts ruling actions, and the result, almost always, is a broken heart. To hear Douglas tell it, the anxiety always emerges with the same questions: Am I good enough? Can I compete with the best? In only her second year as a senior-level gymnast, Douglas is learning what it takes to harden those nerves into the anchored focus of an Olympian. She has learned that to be a competitor, -you can’t make friends on the floor. “No one is going to feel sorry for you, so you have to go out there and be fierce,” she says.


Ever since she performed her first perfect cartwheel at age 3, this is what Douglas has wanted. She possesses the package that international judges reward: effortless flexibility combined with a competitive spirit that has made her the nation’s leading uneven-bars performer. “I like to give them the Flying Squirrel when I go out there and perform,” she says. And her energetic tumbling runs make her a crowd favorite on the floor exercise and vault. In London, she’ll be in contention for the coveted all-around title, which for the past two Games has gone to an American. But even more important than that potential three-peat, Douglas’ contributions could help the U.S. redeem its loss in the teamgold-medal race — missed in Beijing by 2.3 points to China — and win its first in 16 years. It was Douglas’ sister Arielle who first recognized her tumbling talent and talked their mother, Natalie Hawkins, into signing her younger sibling up for gymnastics classes. By the time she was 14, Douglas had placed fourth at the junior national championships but was struggling with coaches who she felt weren’t pushing her enough to learn new skills. She convinced herself that all she needed to become an Olympian was the right mentor. In her mind, the coach was the magic ingredient -- 40.



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“I like to give

...that would transform her into one of the elite performers she admired from afar. . So as she watched the Beijing Games, her attention was naturally drawn not only to star gymnasts — Shawn! Nastia! — but to the always smiling man with the ready hugs who was coaching them: Liang Qiao. Chow, as he spells his name to make the phonetics easier for his American students, was the head coach of the U.S. national women’s team and the personal coach of Shawn Johnson, who won silver in the all-around event in Beijing. “He was always smiling. He looked so happy, like he had such faith in Shawn,” says Douglas during a recent talk in the kitchen of the Iowa home where she lives. “I wanted to be there.” hose smiles and hugs were beguil ing enough for her to decide that Chow was the answer to her problems. A former Chinese national gymnast and world medalist, Chow had traveled to Des Moines

them the

FLYING SQUIRREL when i go out

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at the suggestion of an aunt who was teaching at the University of Iowa, where he found a position coaching gymnastics. Realizing he needed younger charges to raise his coaching profile, he ended up opening his own gym in West Des Moines on what used to be a cornfield. But Hawkins wouldn’t even consider a coach based in the Midwest for her daughter. “Iowa? I don’t know anyone in Iowa,” she says, joking, “Are there people in Iowa? There’s just corn in Iowa.” Douglas was adamant, though, and Hawkins knew she was fighting a losing battle. She had lectured her daughter that part of learning to be an elite athlete was overcoming obstacles and living with imperfect and difficult situations, which for Douglas was the friction she had with her then coach. “One day Gabrielle came home and said, ‘If this was going on at your job, how well could you just deal with it?’” says Hawkins, a recovery specialist with HSBC. “It was at that moment that I came to contemplate letting her move away.” Douglas’ timing was perfect, since Chow happened to be hosting a clinic at her gym, where she got her first opportunity to experience what it would be like to call him coach. What Chow got to see was a young woman perfectly proportioned for gymnastics at 4 ft. 11 in. (150 cm), with strong shoulders and a lean, balletic line. She immediately picked up the Amanar vault that he taught her, one of the most difficult moves that she and her teammates in London will perform. And it only confirmed what Douglas had sensed from the first time she saw him on TV: Chow was the coach she needed. What she hadn’t realized, however, was that the Olympic potion doesn’t miraculously produce confidence and perfect routines. It’s more of a blend of the best of what a coach can give, what an athlete can take and what both of them can give



“you have to go OUT THERE

and be FIERCE.”

back. Chow was initially reluctant to take Douglas on. He recognized her talent but wasn’t keen to move such a young girl away from her family. But her eagerness for gymnastics and obvious thirst for a change finally won him over. “She was sacrificing being with her mom in order to be the best gymnast she can be, and that touched my heart,” he says. He also knew of a potential solution to her housing dilemma, in the form of Missy and Travis Parton, parents of four young girls, one of whom is an avid -gymnast at Chow’s gym. As the Partons saw more and more out-of-towners flock to Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute following the 2008 Games, they approached Chow with an unusual, openended offer: they were willing to host a gymnast with Olympic promise whose family couldn’t afford to move to West Des Moines. “Two months passed, and I started to think, Wow, that was such a silly idea. I don’t know what we were thinking,” says Travis. “Then Chow calls me out of the blue and asks if the offer still stands. I said, ‘Yeah. Do you have somebody?’” Douglas had already gone to Iowa to work with Chow and was happy in the gym but not with her living situation, having jumped from family to family for several weeks. At Chow’s suggestion, Hawkins and Douglas spent a week with the Partons and immediately knew they had found the perfect host family. “If I didn’t know better, I would say Missy gave birth to her, and Travis was there,” says Hawkins. “They literally took her in as if she were their own daughter.” Douglas got a fast promotion, from being the youngest sibling — with two older sisters, Arielle and Joyelle, and an older brother, John — to ruling the roost over the Partons’ four girls, ranging in age from 6 to 10. “It definitely challenges me to be the older sibling, and I try to set an example for them,” she says. “I love helping them with dance or school or at the gym.”

But being away from her family and serving as a role model to her new sisters pushed Douglas to mature a little faster than she was ready for at first. Just after leaving for Iowa, her father, who has been separated from Hawkins since 2007, was deployed for his third Reserve tour, in Afghanistan. “Whoa, that was hard,” she says of going home for that leave-taking. “I ran after the bus, crying.” When she was at school in Iowa, homesickness would sweep over her at random times, and she would burst into tears. At the gym, things weren’t working out as smoothly as she had hoped either. Her first big competition under Chow’s tutelage, the Visa U.S. national championships, was a dud. She fell off the balance beam three times during her minute-and-a-half routine. “I had a lot going through my head mentally. I wasn’t really confident,” she says. Chow admits that she was still so new to him that he didn’t know how to coach her through her nerves. News from home also threw her off-balance; changes big and small reminded her of how alone she was. She missed her ritual of catching the midnight showing of the newest Twilight movie with her sister. And while she trained, finally switching from regular school to online classes to accommodate her competition schedule, her parents proceeded with their divorce. Juggling her emotions, adjusting to a different family dynamic both in West Des Moines and in Virginia Beach and settling into her gymnastics routine finally proved too much. After moving to Iowa in February 2011, she had her only real teen freak-out that Christmas when she refused to practice and rebelled against the Partons’ rules. After conferring with Hawkins, the Partons played the ultimate parental card: they revoked Douglas’ cell-phone and computer privileges for a week. ∫



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OBSTACLE After reconstructive surgery, student-athletes face a grueling path to emotional and physical recovery


The Morning fog hangs thick and heavy in Stillwater, and Jean-Paul Olukemi is screaming. Fellow Oklahoma State students amble to class wearing vacant stares framed by vibrant orange or sharp black cotton hoods that fight off the 10 a.m. chill. On this mid-February day, Olukemi’s hoodie is already off. It sits in a heap on a black leather training table deep in the bowels of Boone Pickens Stadium, within an underground maze of steel and cinderblock. Olukemi’sgrowls and whimpers are inaudible to the students walkingabove, many of whom spent dozens of nights in Gallagher-Iba Arena marveling at the 36-inch vertical leap that helped earnhim a basketball scholarship. But now Olukemi sits in a devilish contraption devised from a plastic chair bolted to a board. His surgically repaired right leg stretches from the chair to the training table. An array of hooks screwed into the board holds thin black ropes as tight as cableson a suspension bridge. The ropes pull upon a pad that runs from his atrophied right quadriceps to his upper shin, forcing theleg to straighten against the will of its newest ligament.

46 | SPRING 2013




Three and a half weeks earlier, Oklahoma State orthopedic sur-

geon Dr. Mark Pascale removed a sliver of muscle from Olukemi’s hamstring. He bored holes through Olukemi’s femur and tibia and strung the harvested muscle through the fresh tunnel. Screws that Pascale inserted will secure the slice of hamstring to Olukemi’s bones, hopefully, for the rest of the 23-year-old’s life. After spending years helping Olukemi mystify defenders, that piece of hamstring has new obligations: replace his torn anterior cruciate ligament, keep his knee from buckling, get him back on the court and ensure that he keeps his scholarship. All are responsibilities seemingly too vital for a few inches of sinew, but the ACL Olukemi was born with betrayed him in the waning hours of 2011. While strapped in the chair, Olukemi struggles to speak through the clenched muscles in his jaw. The agony digs wrinkles in his forehead. He holds his long, wiry fingers together in front of his face, tip to tip, as if negotiating with the pain. After five minutes, John Stemm, one of the school’s athletic trainers, approaches Olukemi, offering a few casual barbs meant to simultaneously evoke laughter and toughness. Stemm reaches a hand down toward the ropes. As if he’s starting a stubborn chain saw, he pulls up on the top of the ropes, which tightens the ones anchored to the board. Stemm’s yank exerts more pressure on the knee and forces Olukemi’s new ACL to relent further. Once more, Olukemi is screaming. He has five more minutes – and several more weeks – in the chair. “It looks like they used that back in medieval times, that chair,” Olukemi says. “It’s constant pain that won’t go away.” Through his rehabilitation, Olukemi, a junior, spends up to four hours every day in that dungeon – battling against pain and uncertainty and fear – as his teammates relish the spotlight of nationally televised games and raucous crowds. In an instant, he was forced to adjust to a world in which the 6-foot-6-inch, 215-pound frame that paid his way to Oklahoma State was rendered useless by a failed inch-long ligament. He limped out of that spotlight, into a dark periphery where he battles the mental and physical strain of a year lost – a year spent learning how to bend and straighten his leg, how to walk, how to rebuild strength and trust in the failed joint … and in himself.

Six to eight months, fans hear, maybe a year. Student-athletes like Olukemi crumple into a heap on a court or a field, clutching vainly at a knee. Slow-motion replays show the joint contorting, buckling, twisting. Questionable return, the announcers say. Torn ACL, the newspapers read. We’ll see him next season, fans think. Bring in the next player. Then they turn the page. But what is an ACL? Why does it matter? Why does it so frequently interject itself into discussions of college athletics? After all, it’s merely one of four major ligaments that stabilize the knee. But it runs vertically through the middle of the joint, serving as its backbone, keeping the femur and tibia in place as players cut, jump and accelerate through practice and competition. Though studentathletes are faster and stronger than they’ve ever been, a study of NCAA injury data revealed that ACL tears rose by 1.3 percent annually over a recent 16-year period. “No matter how strong you are, you’re still at risk,” says Dr. Leland Winston, head physician for Rice athletics. “When the ACL tears, your muscles don’t have time to react quickly enough to protect it. ”Every year, more than 2,000 NCAA student-athletes across 15 high-risk sports will feel that bomb detonate inside their knee, hear the menacing echo reverberate through their body, endure a few minutes of misery in their final moments on the playing surface and eight or more of the most trying months of their lives off it. Next season isn’t assured. But advances in surgical and rehab techniques have shifted the odds dramatically in their favor. Orthopedic surgeons note that roughly 90 percent of athletes recover from ACL tears, most of whom reach pre-injury levels of athleticism. The snap of a ligament and gasps of concerned fans are no longer the requiem for an athletics career. After they’re stitched – sometimes stapled – together, student-athletes will spend many waking hours in forgotten training rooms where torment and tedium collide. As the graft and the screws settle into tunnels burrowed inside bone, they’ll rehabilitate shriveled muscles, performing endless repetitions of exercises that evoke a startling, unfamiliar brand of pain. ∫



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54 | SPRING 2013



here is a new sport making its way into the world of collegiate athletics, rubbing the sleep out of its eyes and digging its toes into the shoreline for what could be a long stay. Sand volleyball—known worldwide as beach volleyball—is in its second year of existence as an NCAA “emerging sport,” and is picking up steam, as this year 30 different colleges are competing on the sand. That means if just ten more colleges add it in the next two years, sand volleyball will become an official NCAA sport in 2016. There are currently three emerging NCAA sports for women, with sand volleyball the most likely to make a long-term impact (the other two are equestrian and rugby). “For one, you don’t have to build a whole new roster from scratch,” says Long Beach State’s sports information director for sand volleyball, Roger Kirk. “But it has a bunch of advantages.” In addition to the fact that most teams are using their indoor volleyball roster to help kick off their sand programs, there’s the fact that it’s a women’s sport, which means there’s a benefit for Title IX compliance for schools that add it. The sport also uses comparatively inexpensive facilities—there is actually a section on the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association website about how to build a sand stadium. Long Beach State, with new sand purchased by Gimmillaro, converted their old recreation facility into an NCAA-ready pit last year, and this year USC built theirs up against the side of the Galen Center parking lot. Because new scholarships and coaches aren’t needed, teams are able to add the sport for relatively cheap—Long Beach State made it to the national championship last year with an operating budget of nothing. The coaches volunteer their time, the players are doing it in lieu of their regular spring practice routine, and support staff like Kirk and facilities director Oscar Hernandez (who puts up the fences and canopies around the 49ers’ home court before each match) are doing extra work out of school pride. Indeed, if bowling can count itself an official NCAA sport, it’s hard to imagine that sand volleyball—which could have its name changed to the more recognizable beach volleyball in 2016—would be far behind. That legitimacy, of course, is due in large part to the 49ers’ most famous athletics alumni, May-Treanor. ∫

"It has a bunch of advantages."”



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people do

GREAT things

You perform YOU win. Louisville won the 75th edition of the NCAA men's basketball championship on Monday, beating Michigan 82-76 in a pulsating final in front of more than 74,000 fans at the Georgia Dome. The Cardinals overcame a slow start, in which they twice trailed by 12 points in the first half, to outscore Michigan 45-38 in the second and capture their third national title after previous wins in 1980 and 1986. "We went into a war today against a great Michigan team," said Hancock, who was named the outstanding player of the tournament. "We needed to rally and we have done it a couple of games."


Champion magazine featuring Gabby Douglas