Rebuilding Laura Moon
April 18, 2002
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Today, the eyes of the women's gymnastics world will be on Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the semifinal rounds of the 2002 NCAA Championships. Twelve teams will be there, vying for a spot in Friday's Super Six final and a shot at a national title. And for those who qualify, individual event finals will be competed Saturday.
For only the fifth time in school history, Arizona State's women's gymnastics team won't be there, at least not together. But Laura Moon will. A senior from Scottsdale, Ariz., Moon is ASU's only NCAA qualifier. She'll compete in the all-around this afternoon, rotating with Nebraska, with the hopes of another All-America acclaimed season and maybe a place in Saturday's finals.
She wept following ASU's third-place finish at the NCAA South Central Regional in Tempe, Ariz., April 6, the Sun Devils finishing less than a tenth of a point shy (0.075) of advancing to Tuscaloosa as a team. Thus, this will be her fourth NCAA Championships, but her third competing as an individual.
Ironically, after a season that began with a horrific fall that could have ended her career, Laura Moon is the last Sun Devil standing.
In a way, her 2002 season started at the 2001 Super Six in Athens, Ga. The day before, Moon and her Sun Devil teammates had competed in the NCAA Championship semifinals, doing enough to secure a ninth place finish, but falling short of the Super Six.
As the race for the national title began, Moon took her seat at Stageman Coliseum and watched with mixed emotions. After two years at the University of Maryland in which she had made it to the national meet as an individual qualifier, this had been her first opportunity to contend for a team crown.
She'd welcomed the change, insisting that the national championship meet is a team event and that 'to be thought of as one of the top-12 teams in the nation was a privilege.' There was but one drawback.
'I was a little disappointed because I wanted to go to the Super Six,' Moon said. 'I mean, I got over it. Six great teams made it, so you can't complain. But I just knew that if we wanted to make it the next year (2002) certain changes had to be made.'
In just one season with the Sun Devils, Moon had become the only gymnast in ASU history to earn two perfect 10.0 scores on uneven bars. She was ASU's school record holder in the all-around with a best of 39.600.
But she knew she could do more, and so went into the summer planning to upgrade the difficulty of her routines in 2002, especially on bars where she'd have one last chance to fulfill her dream of becoming an NCAA individual event finalist.
Moon's summer was relaxing. She worked out some, got in the gym a few times to throw some basic tricks on uneven bars and make a few tumbling passes. But mostly she relaxed, resting heart, mind and body for the season ahead. Considering the luster of her junior campaign, there was every reason to believe she'd have another record-breaking season as a senior.
But it wouldn't come easily. As fall workouts began, Moon was nibbled by the injury bug. She twisted her ankle on balance beam, rehabbed it to adequate strength and then twisted it again.
Soon after, came crushing news: Moon's right knee required surgery. She'd be questionable for ASU's season debut.
This wasn't the first time a knee injury had delayed her dreams.
She was a junior at Scottsdale's Saguaro High, competing locally through the Desert Devils gymnastics club and getting national attention in the recruiting market.
Although NCAA rules prevented phone calls from prospective schools, there were letters. Some from top-notch programs. From Georgia. From UCLA. Not all of them form letters, some were hand-written pleas for her consideration. And she considered and she dreamed.
Junior Olympic nationals would be the stage on which her scholarships were won or lost, only she never made it that far. Shortly before her regional event, Moon tore the meniscus in her right knee. Her visibility and stock plummeted.
'I remember about a month after nationals I got a letter from UCLA,' Moon said. 'It was a 'thanks, but no thanks' letter. Like, 'thanks for your interest in our college, but we're no longer interested in you.' I remember crying.
'I'd never even had the chance to show interest, they were the ones who showed interest. And so I go from receiving hand-written letters to getting 'thanks, but no thanks' letters. First from UCLA, then they all started coming in.'
Dismayed, Moon held on to hope as the date approached on which coaches could legally contact potential recruits by telephone, but the phone line into her house that day was rarely busy.
'I didn't get any phone calls,' Moon said. 'I mean, I got a couple here and there, but it was devastating. It was so hard because I felt that I would have had a lot of good schools interested in me, but I injured my knee.'
In the end, Moon signed on with Maryland. After two MVP seasons there in which she battled homesickness throughout, she wanted out, she wanted back in the Valley of the Sun.
Thankfully, ASU had a scholarship available.
First it had been high school, now this. Here senior collegiate season. Her swansong. The year that was supposed to be a dream, that was quickly turning into a nightmare.
At least she had bars. Knee surgery or not, it was the one event they couldn't take away from her. Not only was it her favorite event, it was the only one she could practice full routines on, sans dismount, without bothering her knee.
She'd use the time wisely. Moon wasn't just polishing her old tricks, there were new skills to learn.
'It was actually Bruce's idea in the beginning,' Moon remembered, referring to the day ASU assistant coach Bruce McGehee told her that her new release move on bars would be a Tkatchev. 'I was excited. This was my last year to learn any new skills, so I was really pumped to learn that.'
Which is how it came to be that Monday, November 19, 2001, three days after learning that she'd have to undergo surgery on her knee, Moon and McGehee were diligently working extra sets on bars.
'I think we had two routines to do that day and I had done my two routines,' Moon said. 'I had just added the Tkatchev into my routine the week prior and I was doing extra because mine kind of went up really, really high, but they didn't get a lot of distance, so a lot of times I'd catch really close to the front of the bar.'
Performed on the high bar, a Tkatchev begins with the gymnast swinging down past the low bar before casting upward as if to do a handstand. The gymnast holds on to the bar until from wrists to shoulders her arms angle upward behind her at roughly 1 o'clock, while the torso and legs remain parallel to the floor, resisting the momentum to cast all the way upward into a handstand.
It's at this point that the gymnast releases the bar, throwing herself head and shoulders first over the high bar toward the low-bar side. Her back begins to cross over the bar. During the flight, she straddles her legs and sits up, reaching her arms straight out in front of her.
Her toes pointed toward the sky now, the backs of thighs pass in front (low bar side) of the high bar. Her legs and feet clear at roughly the same moment she re-grips the high bar. From that point gravity takes hold, the body straightens naturally into the swinging position and the routine continues.
At least, that's what's supposed to happen. But it's not what happened to Moon that day. No where close.
'Do you really want to hear this?'
What McGehee called, 'the ugliest thing I've seen in my life,' happened somewhere between 11-11:30 a.m. The team was doing routines on bars and beam, neighboring apparatuses at the Desert Lights gym in which they train.
As Moon stepped up to do another set, teammates shouted their usual encouragement. Of course they expected nothing short of perfection from Moon. Of anyone on that team she was a natural, especially when it came to bars.
But suddenly, quickly, unexpectedly, disaster struck.
'She was doing a Tkatchev, and she'd been doing them all day and they were fine, but she needed to do more numbers because it was still a new skill,' McGehee said.
'So she got up to do another one and really misjudged the timing and left the bar way too early. She forced her body out too far in front of the high bar so she came down sitting across the backs of her thighs on the bar, which forced the upper part of her body forward and just perfectly hit her face on the bar.
'What she would normally do was reach for the bar, but the timing had been so misjudged that it just put her in perfect position to hit her mouth. So she hit her mouth, then slipped back a little bit and hooked the bar underneath her chin, which forced her backwards onto her back and to the floor.'
For Moon, tears fell at the memory.
'I remember releasing the bar and going up and the next thing I remember is seeing the bar for a split second and then hitting it with my face and flipping backwards and landing on my back on the mat.
'Immediately I knew what had happened and I could feel my teeth all out of place. That's what I felt hit the bar was my mouth and my teeth, so I knew I had kind of messed them up.'
McGehee and an ASU trainer were at Moon's side instantaneously, insisting that she lay down. But that became impossible as Moon started swallowing blood.
Her two lower front teeth were knocked backward and her bottom lip was snagged on one or both of them. Several upper front teeth were also knocked loose.
Moon held a towel and a bag of ice to her mouth as teammates rushed to assemble her things. The hospital was notified that she'd be on her way. Junior teammate and close friend Margaret Wojciak was dispatched to drive her.
Moon was stunned.
'I wasn't really crying and I remember telling myself that I had to be in shock,' she said. 'I'm just sitting there trying to figure out why I'm not getting upset because I know that I've screwed up my face and everything. My teeth.'
Her initial time at the hospital did little to ease her pain. Forced to scribble her replies to the medical staff's questions on paper because her verbal responses were painful and mostly unintelligible, Moon grew increasingly frustrated. And then came her examination.
'It was pretty horrible,' she said. 'The doctor came in and he was really rough with my lip. And I had a hole in the bottom of my lip and he was pulling on my lips and pushing on my teeth.
'My teeth were loose so that really, really hurt, but then I was trying to tell him that my bottom lip was caught on my teeth. He said, no it's not. And the nurse was yelling at me to put my hands down because I kept clenching them in front of my chest.
'I couldn't say it very well, but I was like, 'It's caught! It's caught! My bottom lip is caught!' Then he finally looked and said, 'Oh yeah, it is.''
The solution was a firm yank. Moon screamed.
It was only the beginning. There were X-rays to ensure that her jaw wasn't broken and a plastic surgeon arrived on the scene to assess the damage. Moon squeezed assistant coach Shelly Eaton's hand as she received more than 50 stitches underneath her chin and on the bottom of her lip line.
Then it was to the dentist's office where she spent upwards of four hours, the first of what would be many visits. A root canal was performed - many would follow -- on one of her upper teeth, which had been chipped in half. Bonding was added to numerous teeth.
Her day had started around 9:30 a.m. Her accident had occurred before 11:30 a.m. She arrived home at 6:30 p.m.
It was hard enough that Moon's accident happened on her favorite event, even harder that wounds were inflicted to her face, and harder still that there was damage to her teeth. Her favorite personal feature had been that All-American smile.
When she got home, her roommates were waiting. If hit hadn't hit her yet, it did then.
'This is going to sound really cheesy, but I saw my roommates and just started bawling,' Moon said, drawing laughter through the tears. 'I was crying and saying, 'I don't want to be ugly! I don't want to be ugly!''
She had yet to look at her lip, not comfortable enough to face it. She feared what the scar might look like across her face. Even more she feared what would become of her pearly whites.
'I've always kind of been a teeth person,' she admitted.
Gymnastics was the furthest thing from her mind. First dashed with the news of knee surgery, now suffering the emotional and physical impact of the fall, Moon felt her career was over.
At the hospital she'd told Eaton that she was tired of the setbacks and didn't want to compete anymore. Without asking, her teammates figured as much.
'At first we didn't really know what the extent of the injury was beyond all the blood,' junior Cassidy Vreeke said. 'But as we found out, we didn't think about missing her in terms of gymnastics, but we worried for her the person. We just hoped she'd be okay emotionally and physically.
'Laura doing gymnastics again was the furthest thing from our minds. Knowing what she'd just found out about her knee, it was just another dagger to the heart. How much more could she go through?'
Said Wojciak, 'I thought she'd take a medical redshirt for sure. It was bad enough that she needed knee surgery, but after the crash I certainly didn't expect her to come back.'
Making it worse, Moon's knee surgery, scheduled for the upcoming Tuesday, would have to be delayed. Moon was uncomfortable with the idea of using a local anesthetic, but her teeth were too loose to consider the alternative, which would require intubation. Even more, she was still too emotional to think about yet another medical procedure.
From her home in England, Moon's mother encouraged her to delay surgery for a few months, to wait until her mouth and spirit had healed. But Moon had other ideas.
Somewhere along the way, nursing herself back to health with fruit drinks and Oreo milkshakes, Moon had decided that she wanted to come back, to return to gymnastics this season.
She delayed her surgery only until December 11, her first day after final exams. Performed under a local anesthetic, the tear was located and tended to, as was a bone chip off the back of the kneecap that hadn't appeared on the MRI.
The extra portion of the procedure, which required a small hole to be drilled into the back of her kneecap, would delay her rehab.
The Sun Devils returned to the gym after Christmas Break, December 27. Moon returned, too, sitting in on the team meeting and riding the stationary bicycle.
As before the accident, the first apparatus her knee would be fit to attack was the uneven bars. But after almost a lifetime of throwing tricks unafraid, things would be far more difficult this time around. This All-American gymnast would have to be rebuilt, piece by piece.
'It started swinging on bars just in terms of kips and stuff, which are skills you learn when you're about 5-years-old,' Moon said with a laugh. 'But it felt good to be back. I just needed to have things in my life other than thoughts of what had happened. I was so much happier to be back doing bars, but it was a huge mental struggle for me.'
Moon and McGehee called them hurdles, the emotional obstacles she'd have to overcome to be able to reconstruct her routine. She knew the skills, but she also knew better than she ever had before in her life that accidents can happen.
'I had to bring her back to where she was like 10 or 12-years-old, to go slowly, to calm her down,' said McGehee, who in addition to his duties with ASU instructs youth gymnasts at Desert Lights. 'The first hurdle was just getting on the bar again and doing a kip. I think the second one was actually doing tap swings. And then the giant swing came, and she was really afraid of that.'
Remembered Moon, 'Giants are something you learn when you're 9. I'd done them on the single rail but before I went to do them in between the bars I started to lose it, which is hard for me because I've never really been a mental gymnast. I've never been someone who gets really afraid of anything. I've always just been someone to just go for it.
'Luckily I have Bruce who has been so patient with me. I remember that day I said, 'Bruce, I'm so scared to swing giants.' He said we could do what ever I needed, throw a mat over the bar, raise the bar, spread them out wider, stack mats up underneath. He said, 'I'll spot you if you want. I can do anything for you to get you back up here.''
McGehee then asked Moon how many components of her routine needed to be relearned before she'd ever be ready to compete.
'We counted four or five,' Moon said, starting to laugh. 'And then he said, 'Okay, so that's like four or five more emotional breakdowns and we'll have your routine back.'
'It was kind of like that with every skill. It would be really, really hard and I'd be scared to throw it, but we'd stack up mats and put mats on the bar and Bruce would usually stand on a block and spot me. Then it was just a gradual process where we'd take the mats away one at a time.'
She set a date, February 8. It was the UNO's Classic, the first of the final two regular season home meets on ASU's schedule. That would be her 2002 season debut, if only she could heal from her present injuries in time and avoid falling victim to yet another catastrophe along the way.
But only 10 days away from UNO's, things weren't looking promising.
The rest of her routine was in, but she'd yet to practice a dismount. With her knee still recovering, the first step would simply be throwing dismounts into a pit of foam-rubber.
Her body started to tremble as she got up on the bar. Visions of disaster rushed through her head as Moon began to imagine all the ways in which she could crash and burn, some more plausible than others.
'It was totally a mental thing,' Moon said. 'I was imagining things happing that are basically impossible, or mistakes that could happen that I've never made in my entire life. I'd been scared before, but this time I couldn't do it.'
She knew she didn't have time to waste, but abandoned the idea of doing dismounts that day. Tuesday was an off-day. She'd try again Wednesday.
'I was really upset,' she said. 'I went home and I was mad because bars is my favorite event and I'd become afraid of it.'
By Wednesday, she'd hyped herself up, even negative thoughts wouldn't deter her. She started with two double-tucks and then moved to her double-layout. For the first time in more than two months, she had all the components of a complete routine.
'I was overjoyed,' Moon said. 'It was just such a relief. Then I knew I could do it, now it was just a question of my knee.'
Final medical clearance didn't come until Monday, February 4. She didn't test the knee with dismounts outside of the pit until Wednesday. But Friday, February 8, she was penciled into ASU's lineup on uneven bars.
Some of the anguish was erased just by being there. For too many meets she'd been only a spectator. This time she dressed for the meet. This time she led agility drills. For the first time as a senior, she felt a part of the team.
'It was fantastic,' she remembered. 'I couldn't wait to get to bars, but I just enjoyed the whole experience. I love home meets. Had we been on the road that week, I probably would have rested one more week. But I didn't have many chances left to compete at home.'
She may have just been happy to be there, but make no mistake, Moon was on a mission. Between her teammates and her many friends in attendance, she knew all eyes would be on her one routine. And while most would be happy just to see her compete, just to see her hit her routine, Moon wanted no less than a 9.8.
She anchored the lineup. Before she went to begin her routine, she reminded herself to trust her knee on the dismount.
The routine itself was fairly flawless, a slight slip of a hand standing out as her most major mistake. But the dismount was the winner. Although she'd practiced it on standard mats only a handful of times that week, Moon stuck her landing as if it was the easiest part of her routine.
Before her 9.825 score could be posted, she was mobbed by her teammates.
'I started crying because everyone else was so excited for me,' Moon said. 'Bruce gave me a big hug and said, 'That's my girl, she's back.' It felt so good. I was just overwhelmed, so excited, so happy.
'I saw Shelly was tearing up crying. It was the moment I'd been waiting for.'
Moon and Eaton weren't the only ones with damp eyes.
'I think everyone had chills,' said fellow senior Rhonda Robinette. 'I know I had a tear in my eye. We were all so excited for her.'
Said Vreeke, 'It was like the whole team felt it when she landed her dismount. It was amazing to me. I just wanted her to get on her feet and land the routine, but that's Laura, she does it perfectly.'
The next event Moon's knee could withstand was beam, a saving grace for ASU because the Sun Devils had been abysmal on beam all season. Traditionally one of the program's strengths, going into their March 1 meet with intrastate rival Arizona, they had hit only 23 of 42 beam routines all season.
They'd yet to hit six-for-six in a meet, in fact vs. UCLA they'd completed only two beam routines without a fall all together.
The Arizona meet had extra significance for Moon. It was Senior Night, and even though she and fellow senior Robinette knew that the Sun Devils would remain in Tempe for the NCAA South Central Regional, this night would be their sendoff, their night to remember.
And it was memorable.
After two wildly successful rotations on vault and bars, ASU got to beam riding a wave of momentum they'd failed to harness all season long. They were giving the Wildcats all they could handle, but the Sun Devils knew it could disappear in an instant on beam.
Their younger teammates started things off hitting the first four routines of the rotation. Then up stepped Robinette, who made use of her Senior Night spotlight. Although her previous best had been 9.925, she put an exclamation point on her final regular season home performance by earning ASU's first perfect 10.0 score on beam since 1997.
For the first time all year, ASU wouldn't have to count a fall. But they hadn't quite slain the dragon that was beam. Head coach John Spini reminded Moon that the team's mission remained unaccomplished.
'We need six, we've got to have six,' Moon remembered Spini saying over and over.
Although she failed to receive a perfect score, Moon matched Robinette by earning a personal best of her own, sticking her new two-week-old dismount en route to a 9.95. Even facing the glare of Robinette's illustrious routine, Moon's performance did not go unnoticed.
'That's maybe the routine that I remember most,' Wojciak said. 'She's just an amazing gymnast and I think her beam routine against Arizona was the best I've ever seen her do. I thought she deserved a 10. Rhonda's routine was great, but Laura's was just as good.'
The Sun Devils finished the beam rotation with a school record 49.600 event total. They went on to defeat their archrival with a school record meet total of 197.850.
When Robinette's 10.0 score was recorded that night at Wells Fargo Arena, she became the first Sun Devil since Moon a season before to turn in a perfect routine. Of all the ways she could have chosen to follow in Moon's footsteps, to duplicate her career, that was the most glamorous.
Unfortunately, Robinette's gymnastics career would also be linked to Moon's in another fashion. A tragic one.
Less than two weeks away from the NCAA South Central Regional, Robinette suffered a fall in practice. Like Moon, it was on her favorite event, for Robinette that was balance beam.
Losing control of a tumbling series, Robinette began falling to the floor. On her way down her right arm slammed across the beam. The sound of her humerus bone cracking echoed of Moon's awful collision with the high bar.
Only days before, Robinette had said of Moon's season, 'It's sad. Your senior season is supposed to be perfect, but she's had to go through so much just to be able to compete a few events . . .
'Watching her come back has been a huge motivation to the team, but I wish she hadn't had to go through all that. She deserved better.'
This time it was Robinette in pain, Robinette to the hospital, Robinette who deserved better.
Only Moon could truly relate.
'It's just not fair,' Moon said. 'You try to make sense of it but . . .'
The NCAA South Central Regional wasn't everything that Moon hoped it would be. But then, her entire season had been that way.
Going into their final rotation of the meet, the Sun Devils knew they needed at least a team total of 48.900 on uneven bars to unseat Arizona for the second of two NCAA Championship berths.
Although her teammates had given a valiant effort, but by the time Moon stepped up for the final routine of the meet, it was virtually decided. Her last routine in Wells Fargo Arena earned a 9.825, equal to her first score of the year. The Sun Devils came up short.
Finally healthy enough to compete in the all-around, she had made her season debuts on vault and floor exercise that night, receiving a 9.625 and 9.8, respectively. With her 9.65 beam score added, Moon finished with an all-around total of 38.900, no where near her school record best, but good enough to land her a trip to Tuscaloosa.
Today she'll compete to prove herself as one of the most gifted all-around gymnasts in the country. Of course, she long ago proved that she was a champion.
'Laura is one of the most inspiring gymnasts I have ever coached in my 22 years here,' Coach Spini said. 'She inspires me to be a better coach and to be a better person. What she did this year, to come back from the injuries that she suffered, is a tribute to her tremendous character. She leaves Arizona State in my opinion as one of the most dynamic and special athletes to ever come through our program.'
Said Wojciak, 'I just love her, I don't know how anyone couldn't. She's just an amazing gymnast and an amazing person. After her crash, no one would have blamed her if she would have quit and walked away. Not many people could have come back from something like that, a lot of them wouldn't have even tried. But when Laura made up her mind that she wanted back, nothing was going to stop her.'
Said Vreeke, 'The most impressive thing was that Laura never even blinked an eye through any of this, she just stepped up every time. Her knee got better and she went right into the lineup on bars. We needed her on beam, and she went right into the beam lineup. She didn't get a lot of practice but it didn't matter. She just came in and hit every time. That she could go through all that and come back and be almost perfect again is just incredible.'
Fans at Tuscaloosa's Coleman Coliseum who know nothing of Moon's senior saga won't be able to see the story on her face. Most of those 50 stitches are hidden along the bottom of her lip line, no more apparent than the other scars that unnoticeably dot her arms, casualties of running through a glass door as a child.
The teeth that were broken or knocked loose have been rebuilt into their previous glory thanks to hours upon hours in the dentist's chair, so the All-American smile is as bright as before.
She won't wear a brace, and although her knee still gives her constant pain she won't hobble from event to event.
Yes, to the casual observer she'll look like any other elite gymnast out there, when really she's so much more.
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