In the moments following her unsuccessful beam dismount against West Virginia in February 2022, UNC gymnast Lali Dekanoidze knew she had injured herself.
What began as another successful day of competition for Dekanoidze ended with her suffering a significant right knee injury — with a fractured patella and torn MPFL. She needed surgery, and it would be another two months before she walked again.
She remembers the pain of that dismount, and how her knee gave out before her teammates could applaud the performance.
“It was so heartbreaking to know I couldn’t compete the rest of the season and might not do gymnastics again,” Dekanoidze said. “I was focused on just trying to walk again.”
This heartbreaking injury with a longer-than-expected recovery has transformed into a record-breaking start to the season for Dekanoidze. In her first meet at Carmichael Arena since her injury — UNC’s home opener against N.C. State — she set North Carolina’s record for the highest single-event score with a 9.975 on bars.
11 months prior, Dekanoidze’s future in the sport wasn’t so certain.
UNC head coach Danna Durante said that, before her injury, Dekanoidze made immense progress throughout her first season. The young phenom had a chance to make it to NCAA nationals, she said.
“Not only is she talented, but she's worked very, very hard all of her life to be in a position where she could be a very successful athlete,” Durante said. “She was really making a difference for her team.”
After the West Virginia meet last February, Dekanoidze couldn't compete NCAA nationals or the postseason at all.
Dekanoidze said she didn’t initially process the injury after it happened, and that it took until that night for her to understand its severity. She described the long and tedious recovery process as hard and confusing but said she felt lucky to be training at UNC.
“Mentally it was way harder than it was physically,” she said. “I want to be there mentally for my team.”
What the gymnast initially expected to be a six-month recovery soon became much longer. After months of working just to walk unassisted, Dekanoidze began her journey back to the mat by doing non-impact gymnastics over the summer. Despite this progress, she was still unsure of what her future in the sport held, and nonetheless, was determined to return to competition.
In North Carolina’s annual Blue & White Intrasquad in December, the gymnast got a taste of competition for the first time in nearly 10 months.
“Competing is my favorite setting to be in,” Dekanoidze said. “It was the most rewarding feeling and having my team supporting me meant everything.”
Dekanoidze’s true competitive return came in the Super 16 on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Returning to her first competition in close to a year didn’t stop Dekanoidze from being a top contributor. She tied for second on bars with a 9.850 and posted a 9.775 on vault.
Fellow sophomore Isabelle Schaefer, who grew up competing against Dekanoidze in the Charlotte area, remembers sharing in the emotions of Dekanoidze’s long-awaited return.
“At our first competition in Vegas, I actually cried because she started crying and then pretty much everybody did,” Schaefer said. “If gymnasts come back from an injury like that, it's just a huge deal.”
The Tar Heels had their first home meet of the season just three days later against EAGL rival N.C. State. In a slim 196.225-195.525 win, Dekanoidze thrived.
The first rotation was vault, where the sophomore led UNC and matched her career high of 9.900.
But she hadn’t peaked for the night.
Dekanoidze earned a 9.975 after her nearly-perfect bar routine — making her the outright leader on North Carolina’s all-time leaderboard.
The sophomore said she “felt very surprised” but, at the same time, made it clear that her “expectations honestly haven’t changed” following her injury.
“She deserved a 10.000. It was probably the best routine I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Schaefer said of Dekanoidze’s bars performance. “It gives me the confidence to go and hit a routine after her.”
Schaefer directly followed her teammate on bars and put up a 9.825.
With each step she makes in her recovery, Dekanoidze is eager to ask what’s next and when she can add another event for competition. For the time being, the gymnast who was unsure about life after injury less than a year ago is now the Tar Heel all-time score leader.
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