Miraculous Winn

May 1, 2008

In February at the Pac-10 Diving Championships in Federal Way, WA, freshman diver Laura Winn was badly injured after hitting the diving board with her face on an inward dive. It has been a long road back, but Winn is making strides towards returning to the pool.

This story was writted by Daily Bruin reporter Matt Stevens.

Hidden underneath the sleeve of her gray UCLA diving sweatshirt, freshman Laura Winn wears a bracelet.

It's a little too big for her and it could probably slide off without much effort.

On the surface, the bracelet doesn't look like anything particularly special. Large brown links are connected to a shiny silver dog tag in the middle of the bracelet. As it glimmers in the afternoon sun, it's hard to even read what the words on the dog tag say:

'Believe in miracles.'

Winn almost lost the oversized bracelet once. She took it off at the Pac-10 diving championships in Federal Way, Wash.

After what happened to her there, she'll never take it off again.

From gymnast to diver

Winn wasn't always a diver. In fact, she's only been a part of the sport since her sophomore year in high school. Prior to that, Winn's sport was gymnastics.

For seven years, gymnastics was Winn's life. She toughed out an elbow injury and even made it through stitches that resulted from a poorly timed dismount.

But in seventh grade she'd had enough. The nagging elbow injury, not to mention a longing to spend more time with her friends, made her decision for her.

But without sports to keep her busy, she suffered from boredom.

That is, until she found diving.

'Once I found diving my sophomore year in high school, it finally stuck,' Winn said. 'Things weren't sticking for me. I tried learning the guitar, I tried swimming, I tried volleyball, but diving was the only thing that finally stuck.'

Her background in gymnastics enabled Winn to take to her new sport quickly.

'In high school, I dove just for the sake of having fun, for the sport and having something to do,' Winn said. 'But when I was a senior, it hit me there was a possibility I could continue doing this in college. I was committed to gymnastics my whole life, and I kind of needed a break from that for a couple years, but by my senior year ... I had come to love diving.'

Although she wasn't sure if diving in college would fit into her dream of being a mechanical engineer or if she even had enough experience to compete at a Division I school, Winn verbally agreed to walk onto the UCLA squad in spring 2007.

'I kind of was just like, `Bring it on, I'm ready and I want to give it a try,'' Winn said.

'And I think (coach Tom Stebbins) saw that.'

From there, things proceeded nicely for Winn. Stebbins needed someone on the team to step up behind All-Americans Marisa Samaniego and Tess Schofield.

After a highly competitive meet in Indiana, Winn finally began to recognize her potential.

'I went into the (Indiana) meet thinking, `Oh, man, all these people are going to kill me. I'm just a freshman, I haven't been diving that long, I don't have very hard dives yet,'' Winn said. 'And I ended up making finals on three-meter. It was just kind of a turning point, saying `Hey - I can compete with these people. I can compete with D-I divers.''

Against USC, Winn solidified herself as a legitimate competitor at the highest level, scoring an impressive 241.95 in the Bruins' final meet before the Pac-10 Championships.

'It's funny because I kind of really wanted something really special to happen (at the Pac-10 Championships),' Winn said.

'I worked hard all year, and thought, `This is it, this is my time to shine.' ... I wanted a miracle to happen, but not what happened. But I still got a miracle.'

A dive gone wrong

On the second day of the Pac-10 Championships, Friday, Feb. 29, Winn woke up to a relaxing morning. She slept in, and took some time out to study for a chemistry midterm she was supposed to take directly after the meet.

Her warm-up went well, but when she took to the diving board for competition, she started pressing. Winn was trying too hard, and her desire and effort were hampering her abilities.

'My first two dives were okay,' Winn said. 'Then the third dive was, `Eh, could be better.' Then it just kind of got worse. My fifth dive, my back two-and-a-half, I missed it. I kind of got a little teary-eyed because I wanted to do well so badly.'

Before her sixth and final dive, Winn said she wasn't nervous; she just wanted to get through what had turned into a rough day. Her final dive was an inward two-and-a-half - a dive she had done all year, and one that had earned some of her best scores.

To execute an inward two-and-a-half a diver stands with her heels off the board and back to the water. When she springs off the board, she flips up and forward, in the direction of the board and the pool underneath.

When Winn flipped forward, her face smashed against the diving board.

'The next thing I remember, I'm on the side of the pool being strapped to a lifeguard thing, not knowing what happened, asking questions, people all around me,' Winn said. 'I was cold. I don't remember my head hurting. I think I was in too much trauma or shock to even know. From there on out it's kind of all a blur.'

Winn was taken immediately to a nearby hospital in Federal Way, where the initial diagnosis was grim.

'Originally they told my mom I was going to have to have hours and hours of reconstructive surgery,' Winn said. 'I had fractures all over my face. I was going to have to get plates in my cheek. I had a tiny air bubble near my brain so they were worried about that. They thought I'd probably be in Seattle for about a month.'

It was that Friday night that Winn hit her low point, thinking she would never dive again.

'I was just so miserable,' Winn said. 'They were giving me tons of pain medication, but that was when it was starting to hurt. I was so thirsty, but they were just giving me these gross lemon swabs. And I'm terrified of needles with the IVs and shots. That was the worst point just laying there with my head aching.'

The visit

But then, Winn said, the miracles started.

Winn's spirits were lifted when her team and coach came to visit her before they left for home.

'My first reaction was like `Oh God.' ... My face was like a balloon, and purple,' she said. 'I just didn't want to scare them again or make them sad in any way. But when they came in they were just awesome. They just held it together and told me how much they loved me, how much they missed me and how much they were going to miss me.'

Stebbins said it was important for the team to see Winn and make sure she was OK.

'It was just really, really emotional,' Stebbins said. 'This is a group that cares deeply about each other, but they're also all great kids.'

It was that visit that made Winn resolve not to quit diving after such a difficult first night in the hospital.

'When the girls came into the hospital to visit me before they left, it kind of hit me that there was no way I wanted to stop seeing them every day and doing the sport with them,' she said.

The girls put a smile on Winn's face, telling her that she had actually been given a score for the tragic dive Friday, because technically she had completed it.

By completing the dive, she also completed the meet, even though she may not have been there to see her final tally light up the scoreboard.

And before they left, Winn's teammate Samaniego had something to give to her.

'Right before Pac-10s we got these bracelets (that say) `Believe in miracles,'' Winn said.

'We all got one before we left, and I had taken mine off for the meet. Marisa, she found my bracelet and put it on my wrist. I'm not sure how they found it. They found it though, and I think that was a moment for them.'

'These bracelets, we wear them every day. It means so much more now.'

Things are looking up

Perhaps it was the bracelet, perhaps it was Winn's faith - whatever it was, Winn got some news that sounded very much like a miracle on Wednesday, March 5.

It was that afternoon that Winn and her mother received word from Winn's doctor that although Winn suffered multiple fractures, things had miraculously fallen into place on her face, and the only thing that remained out of place was her nose.

Multiple surgeries had just been trimmed to a single one. Thirty days in the hospital were reduced to three. Fear of the unknown had subsided. Full facial reconstructive surgery had been neatly reduced to a nose job. Not only was Winn going to be OK, she was going to be OK much faster than she'd hoped.

'My poor mother, she just burst into tears,' Winn said.

'My mom had been through it all. She was the one who had to hear most of the bad news. It made me happy to just see her so happy.' Armed with the good news, Winn immediately set her sights on a goal that previously seemed impossible: to get back to UCLA and finish the quarter.

In between stops at her roommate's home in Washington, the hospital and her home in the Bay Area, Winn, anxious and bored, hit the books.

And while she was in Washington, she watched one of her high school's dive meets. Only days removed from the most traumatizing experience of her life, Winn was staring straight at a diving board again.

'I actually missed it,' Winn said. 'Watching them dive, all I wanted to do was get on the board and be like `Look what I learned this year.' I think that just made me really realize that I don't want to quit.'

By the Sunday of finals week - only two weeks removed from lemon swabs and IVs - Winn stepped back onto campus.

Her roommate didn't even know she was coming back, but was pleasantly surprised. 'Just seeing (my roommate) and seeing the other swimmers on my floor and just seeing my friends again,' she paused, 'it was just what I needed. I was finally home.'

The road to recovery

Last week Winn received clearance to start the training she will need if she hopes to dive again. She has a detailed list from Stebbins, outlining the step-by-step rehab process that she's eager to undergo.

Stebbins said there are a lot of unknowns concerning Winn's recovery at this point.

'My whole concern is that she is happy,' Stebbins said.

'And that she is progressing at a rate that is comfortable for her and will allow her to hopefully at some point get back to where she was. I don't have any idea what it's going to look like or how it's going to work, I just know that whatever she needs from me, I will provide.'

For right now, Winn can only check running and light lifting off the list, as doctors are still concerned about a minor fracture around the sinuses that could be aggravated by chlorine. But anything is a start, and anything is better than what she thought she'd be able to do a month ago.

'It's such a privilege to be on this team,' Winn said. 'Not only am I able to be with such a great group of people, I have a great coach and great teammates. I love what a sport brings. You work hard, and you accomplish things every day. In the end, you just feel like a better person for getting through it. I think that if anything, this accident will teach me a lot.

'I need to try at least. I need to go back, and I want more than anything to finish my four years here.'

But all talk of diving aside, there is one distinct way in which the accident has changed Laura Winn.

Now she believes in miracles.

'It was a miracle that I was back at school on finals week,' she said, while staring at her bracelet. 'It was a miracle that I got As in my classes. It's a miracle that my coach and my team were able to finish the year. Just so many things. It could have been worse. No matter how much it sucked, it could have been worse. In that sense it's just a huge miracle.

'I'm not really superstitious. I've never really had anything that I keep that has meant a lot to me. (The bracelet) just doesn't seem like a coincidence to me. ... I can't really describe it. I'll never lose it. I'll never take it off.'

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