Magjuka looks back, moves forward
Three years ago, North Carolina gymnast Meredith Magjuka broke her back.
Three weeks ago, she broke her personal record in a floor exercise.
To get to where she is today, she had to go for broke.
“You might be able to slow her down a little bit,” UNC coach Derek Galvin said. “But you cannot stop her … She only knows one speed, and that’s all-out.”
Magjuka, a redshirt junior from Greenwood, Ind., has always been a standout gymnast.
But she’s no stranger to injury.
The three-time USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic National Champion sat out her senior season in high school after tearing ligaments in her ankle and, after her recovery, came to Chapel Hill looking to contribute as a freshman.
A rocky start
On Feb. 20, 2010 — in Magjuka’s fourth meet as a Tar Heel — UNC traveled to Raleigh to take on N.C. State.
In the warm-up session for the uneven bars, Magjuka attempted a new mount that she had yet to perform in competition. The mount — a straddle-over — required Magjuka to jump off a springboard, grab the low bar, straddle it and catch the high bar.
But the bars’ set-up at N.C. State was slightly higher than Magjuka was used to.
She sprung off the vault board but misplaced her hands and slipped off the bar.
She tucked her head to avoid hitting the high bar and almost did a somersault as she dropped approximately 5 feet onto her back.
As Magjuka lay on the floor, Meredith Petschauer, the gymnastics team’s head athletic trainer, came to assess her.
“At first she said, ‘My back really hurts,’” Petschauer said. “She has kind of a history of back pain, so if she lands there we’re thinking, ‘Okay, she twisted funny.’”
After an analysis of the injury on the mat, nothing seemed too out of place, and Magjuka stood up and walked to the athletic training room with Petschauer.
“I remember turning to (Petschauer), and I said, ‘You know, I’ve never broken a bone, but I’m pretty sure this is what it would feel like,’” Magjuka said.
The CT scans taken at UNC Hospitals later that night confirmed Magjuka’s suspicion — she had fractured her L1 vertebrae.
Magjuka spent the night in the hospital for doctors to monitor her status.
“It was a scary night because the doctors had to keep coming in to make sure I could move my feet and stuff like that,” Magjuka said.
Back to the basics
Magjuka’s recovery process, unlike the Dark Knight, consisted of more than a length of rope and a swift punch to the spine.
“It was not fun,” Magjuka said. “I had about two or three months where I was in significant braces. I had a corset-type brace and a brace that had metal bars on my chest and my hips and my sides, and I had to stay in bed most of the time.”
Despite the hardships, Magjuka decided to stay in school during the spring semester of her freshman year.
“To get around, to go get food, to take a shower, anything was really a challenge,” Magjuka said. “It was hard to go from being a normal functioning college student — a gymnast — to not being able to put my shoes on.”
Though the ordeal was taxing, Galvin believed that Magjuka’s inability to compete gave her an opportunity to realize other ways that she could contribute to the team.
“For a lot of gymnasts … they tend to picture their value within the team as a function of the scores that they can get,” Galvin said. “And what Meredith eventually learned was she could be just as valuable to the team without even competing.”
Senior Maura Masatsugu agreed that Magjuka was still a valuable member of the team during her recovery.
“She was able to come back and really be able to help the team in any way she could and provide hope and strength for the team, just by her being there and coming to the meets and the meetings,” Masatsugu said. “She probably couldn’t have handled it any better.”
After she was finally out of the braces, Magjuka started with the basics.
“It took a really long time to actually get to the point to start trying gymnastics again,” she said. “There was a lot of recovery just to be a normal functioning person before the gymnastics all started.”
Despite her positive attitude and focus, Magjuka admits, there were times where she was doubtful of her return to gymnastics.
‘Getting out there’
Almost a year after her fall left her inactive, Magjuka was cleared for competition. On Jan. 16, 2011, she donned a Carolina blue leotard for the first time since her injury 11 months earlier.
That weekend, UNC traveled to an invitational at George Washington University. While her return at the meet represented the culmination of everything she had been working toward for months, Magjuka wasn’t exactly excited.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Magjuka said, “since this had happened at a meet and I had been through so much rehab and the doctors kept saying that I was so lucky — that I didn’t have any nerve damage, that I wasn’t paralyzed — all kinds of things that would change your whole life.”
Galvin wasn’t surprised that the injury had left Magjuka emotionally fractured.
“That may have been in the back of her mind — the concerns about reinjuring, having another fall that could be a fluke,” he said. “You kind of second-guess yourself for a while.”
UNC cruised to first place, but Magjuka was not comforted or content with her first performance after the injury.
She instead acknowledged the mental stress that had engulfed her and hindered her performance.
“I let a lot of the fear and all of those things take over,” Magjuka said. “I wasn’t a very strong competitor at that point. I was dealing with a lot of issues just in getting out there.”
Fast forward two years, and the hesitant, scared gymnast who couldn’t fulfill her own expectations has been replaced with a confident, more focused competitor.
This season, finally, Magjuka said she has been able to put the past behind her.
“Every other year I have been trying to get back to the way I was or something like that,” she said. “This year, really, my main focus is to focus on the things that I can control.”
What she has been able to control, she has been improving upon. And this season, Galvin once again sees the gymnast he watched on the national stage five years ago.
“I think she’s more confident in what she can do now,” Galvin said. “So she’s not as worried about some of the things that can go wrong.”
Facing a seemingly insurmountable task — a return to the sport responsible for her injury — Magjuka put everything into achieving her goal.
And that deserves a pat on the back — just not too hard.
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