Jan. 14, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com

Oklahoma gymnast Natasha Kelley is one tough cookie.

One year after suffering a season-ending Achilles tear, and having to sit on the Sooners' sidelines in 2009, Kelley was thrilled about competing this season following such a lengthy hiatus.

Kelley, the 2006 U.S. Junior National Champion and four-time national team member, had been OU head coach K.J. Kindler's top recruit last year before the injury in the 2009 preseason. But, instead of starting her much-anticipated collegiate career, she redshirted, rehabilitated and watched her teammates post 10th-place finish at NCAA Championships.

The native of Katy, Texas, went back to the gym in the preseason, and was ready to go, more excited than ever to be able to compete this year. And, then, it happened again. In November, Kelley suffered a complete ACL tear in her knee.

"I just thought, 'this can't be happening right now,'" said Kelley. "I was hit pretty hard at first, because I didn't really know that I would have the option to compete."

The injury was a pure ACL tear with no additional damage, and after the doctor examined her, she was given the option to try to rehabilitate and compete this season.

"There wasn't a doubt in my mind that's what I wanted to do," said Kelley. "I didn't expect it to feel this good and turn out this good, but at that point I was willing to try anything."

"It's a big decision not to have that surgery, but in her mind there was no other option," said Kindler. "She didn't flinch when the doctor said she could try rehab and come back. Once he said that, she didn't hear anything else."

Kelley's determination to return to competition sparked a lightening-speed rehabilitation. She must wear a large knee brace - much like the one seen on football players - and the team trainer monitors her closely, making sure the other areas in her leg remain strong and stable.

"She's a very strong athlete mentally," said Kindler. "She's got it all together. So, physically I feel like her body just followed her mind."

Just weeks later, Kelley competed in her first collegiate meet on Jan. 8, helping the Sooners to a stunning 196.250-195.275 upset of then-No. 4 Florida, and sharing the individual title on the uneven bars with a score of 9.85. She also recorded the meet's fourth-best score on the balance beam (9.80).

"She's really a great competitor, and I'm sure it was even more satisfying that it was against the No. 4 team in the nation and an SEC power," said Kindler. "She's pumped about it, but she still knows what she did wrong and wants to be perfect. She's already trying to fix those little details. I guarantee she's going to be a competitive force for us and an event winner over and over."

Although she will not compete in floor exercise this season, Kelley believes she will be ready to vault in meets in about two weeks, and has been practicing full vaults this week.

"With the large brace on her leg, it's the running that is taking the most adjustment for her," said Kindler. "I guarantee she'll be vaulting in the next two weeks - she wants it so badly."

Kelley's incredible comeback and level of toughness has also made an impression on her teammates.

"What her teammates saw was that she's gone through two massive injuries - most of the time season-ending, and sometimes career-ending - and five weeks later she's out on the competition floor," said Kindler. "As a coach, it's amazing, but I think it's given her a whole different level of respect with her teammates."

Oklahoma, now second in the GymInfo team rankings, was one of only two squads in the nation to break the 196.000-point barrier during the opening week of competition, joining No. 1 UCLA (196.600).

"We're definitely very proud of our win last week," said Kelley. "It was a big step for us and a big goal to accomplish. I think we have a really great season ahead of us."

The Sooners travel to No. 9 Auburn to take on their second straight Southeastern Conference opponent on Jan. 15.