Kayla Nowak shines from the sidelines.
Oklahoma Athletics

LOS ANGELES -- Kayla Nowak is a familiar face on the Oklahoma team, one that used to be an integral part, until a career-ending back injury in December. But now that's she's regulated to the sidelines, she may actually be more vital and inspirational than when she was competing.

Nowak is ever-present on the sidelines and will be watching as her team tries for a national championship on Saturday night.

It was a routine practice session in December 2012. Nowak was working on the uneven bars, practicing a move she had done countless times, when it all went horrifically wrong.

Nowak came off the bar, her heels got caught and she landed awkwardly on her back. The upper back went one way and the force sent her legs over her head.

“I couldn’t breathe for a good 30 seconds or so,” Nowak said. “I was trying to catch my breath and I didn’t know what the heck was going on.”

“They call it suit casing,” Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler said. “I’d seen people fall like that before, but it was her reaction that made me know that it was worse. Her reaction was different than other athletes' I have had that have fallen.”

Though she could move all her limbs, it was worse than anyone knew. Not only did Nowak fracture her vertebrae, she dislocated it and had it moved the other way, it would have paralyzed her.

“I thought I was going to be ok,” Nowak said. “I was scared and in a lot of pain, but I didn’t know it was serious until I had an X-ray done. I had 20 people whispering and I’m on this table and I knew this was not right, something’s not good.”

Not until after the surgery when the doctor came into her hospital room, did she realize the severity.

“My parents were there and the doctor explained it to me,” Nowak said. “At that point I was like, ‘Holy crap.’”

It was then she also realized that her gymnastics career was finished, but she still wanted to be a member of the team, even if she couldn’t participate. A meet with rival Georgia was coming up in a month and that was what came to mind first.

“She was lying in her hospital bed and we were all in there and the doctor came in and she asked him straight up ‘Can I go to Georgia?’” Kindler said. “It was going to be four weeks after her surgery. The doctor told her we should take it one step at a time and she really wanted to go. That is when I found she was really still invested in the team. She hadn’t even walked yet when she asked him.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Nowak said. “I knew it was four weeks away and the doctor said as long as everything went fine the first two weeks, I would start feeling okay. I knew by then I would be okay and I was going to be at that meet.”

In four weeks, Nowak went from not sure she was going to walk without a walker or a cane to showing up at the meet in a back brace.

“I wasn’t ready to be done,” Nowak said. “I still wanted to be a part of it. It’s more than just working out and competing. It’s the girls and my coaches and I wasn’t at all ready to give that up just yet. I still wanted to go through it all and be a part of it.”

Nowak celebrated the team’s victories and her own. After three months, the back brace was removed. She still has it in the trunk of her car and is planning on making a morbid sort of memento.

“I was so happy to get that brace off, I was counting down the hours,” Nowak said. “I want to melt it down. I am trying to figure out what I want to do with it. I want to make a trophy with it.”

Her attitude has been mixed with humor and smiles and it has astounded those around her.

“She could have been mad at the world, she could have been sad, she could have taken it out on other people, she could have been holed up in her bedroom,” Kindler said. “She didn’t do that.”

"There never really was a 'why me' moment,” Nowak said. “I had one breakdown after our first home meet. Not being able to be out there, it really hit me. I was really upset and knew I wasn’t going to compete again. This hasn’t been that hard. Once I had that one moment, it’s gotten easier.”

Her comfort now comes from the sidelines, cheering on her teammates and proving to be a constant inspiration.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Kindler said. “She has been with the team since day one of this happening. Her team was very shaken by this and the fact that it cut her career short, they were very affected by this. We all think gymnastics is everything and what she taught them was she said it’s time to take a check on my perspective on life. She had a great career in gymnastics and she got a lot out of it, but she said it was time for her to move on.”