Sharaya Musser is at the top of the collegiate gymnastics world. She is the nation’s No. 1 all-arounder, and is tied for first on the balance beam. The sophomore has claimed Big Ten Gymnast of the Week honors each of the last three weeks, and anchors a Penn State team that is currently tied for No. 10 in the national rankings.

But, just four short years ago, Musser was fighting for her life in a Colorado hospital with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – a strain of staph bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections.

In the year leading up to her bout with MRSA, Musser was treated three times for outbreaks of staph. The first one was misdiagnosed as a spider bite – a common mistake by doctors. The second made her foot swell up so badly that she could not walk on it. That infection was cleared with antibiotics, but not long after she came down with another.

In February 2007, about a year after her initial outbreak, the 16-year-old Musser woke up feeling sick with lots of pain in her back. She thought it was just the flu, but the next day her symptoms continued to worsen. Her parents took her to see the doctor, never expecting their daughter had a life-threatening disease that had infected her bloodstream.

“None of the doctors could actually figure out what was wrong with me,” Musser said. “I had a spinal tap done checking for spinal meningitis. Finally, they brought in an infectious disease specialist and he treated me for MRSA. The MRSA had gotten into my blood system and my blood was full of bacteria and they don’t know how that happened.”

Musser stayed in the hospital for 10 days, fighting the infection that was ravaging her body.

“On the fourth day I was in the hospital, I remember the doctor telling my Dad, ‘you may want to call your wife and family to come in … we don’t think she’s going to live until the morning,’” Musser said. “That was one of the worst nights ever, but luckily I hung in there.”

Around the eighth day at the hospital, Musser’s condition finally turned the corner and the bacteria began clearing from her blood. Two days later, she was able to go home, but she still had to undergo IV drip antibiotics for the next five weeks.

The battle with MRSA had ripped Musser of her strength, making normal activities a chore, and training as an elite gymnast impossible.

You find it in the elite gymnasts that compete in the Olympics and World Championships – they have the ability to draw you in with the beauty of what they’re doing, but also to wow you with the power that they use. It’s a rare combination.
-- Jeff Thompson

“When I got out of the hospital, I was so weak that I couldn’t even walk on my own,” Musser said.

But over the next few weeks, Musser regained her strength and started to really notice the difference in her energy level. In the couple weeks before Musser’s hospital stay, she had felt pretty weak after practices and just wanted to come home and sleep.

“It was really odd,” Musser said. “I felt rundown, but I was still doing everything in the gym, but it was a struggle. I just thought it was because we were working so hard in the gym.”

Musser slowly returned to the gym, and with some watered down routines she was amazingly able to compete at Colorado state championships just weeks after her scare. She qualified for regionals, and eventually earned the right to compete at Junior Olympic Nationals where she placed sixth in the all-around competition.

A year later at Junior Olympic Nationals is when current Penn State head coach Jeff Thompson caught his first glimpse of Musser. She won the balance beam and vault at the 2008 meet, and placed second in the all-around, earning second looks from collegiate coaches around the nation.

Thompson, who was the head coach at Auburn University at the time, remembers finding out that Musser already had decided she was heading to Penn State. Musser’s father and uncle are PSU graduates, and she wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a Nittany Lion.

“She stood out,” Thompson said. “She was that much better than anyone else. Right away, I found out she was going to Penn State. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not fair. I haven’t even been able to write to her yet and she’s already made up her mind.’”

But after longtime Penn State head coach Steve Shepherd retired last June, Thompson took the program’s helm a month later, finally getting a chance to coach Musser.

“She’s great on everything,” Thompson said. “You find it in the elite gymnasts that compete in the Olympics and World Championships – they have the ability to draw you in with the beauty of what they’re doing, but also to wow you with the power that they use. It’s a rare combination.”

Musser, who was the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, continues to impress her new coach daily with her work ethic and her desire to compete at the highest level. She continually adds new skills to her routines, making them increasingly difficult.

What the scores do not show is that Musser still sometimes struggles with the lasting effects from her fight with MRSA. When she had the disease, her lungs filled up with fluid and shrunk, making it more difficult for her to breathe normally.

“I have a hard time with my endurance and breathing on floor routines,” Musser said. “It’s hard for me to get air…the doctors said my lungs may never expand back to the size they were. I’ve worked on endurance and running a lot to help that, but I can still feel that sometimes.”

But that roadblock is certainly not stopping Musser this season. Last weekend, Musser registered a career-best performance (39.725) in the all-around at Penn State’s tri-meet victory against Maryland and NC State. She notched career-high scores of 9.950 on the beam and floor en route to event wins, and also posted first-place finishes on vault (9.925) and the uneven bars (9.90).

Penn State earned a season-high team score of 197.075 in the meet – the team’s third consecutive competition with a 196.325 or better after posting scores in the 195 range for most of the season.

“Looking back from our first meet in January, I can see how far all the girls have come,” Musser said. “It’s amazing to see that. Everyone looks so confident now. I think the team really believes we are good and that we can compete with the top teams in the country. To see that progress is awesome.”

Penn State closes out the regular season at West Virginia on March 12 before heading to the Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis on March 19.